June Lockhart Rocked the Acting Profession

As we check out some of my favorite actresses this month, this week we learn about one of the most prolific actresses on the small screen. With more than 170 credits between 1938 and 2004, June Lockhart had a very successful career.

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Perhaps destiny planned for June to become an actress. Both her parents, Canadian-born Gene and English-born Kathleen Lockhart, were actors and she traveled with them as a young child while they performed. Although she was born in New York City in 1925, she was brought up in Beverly Hills.

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June with her parents
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She was only 8 when she took the role of Mimsey in “Peter Ibbetson” at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1938, at age 13, June made her film debut in A Christmas Carol with her parents. She appeared in more than thirty movies, including Meet Me in St. Louis, Sergeant York, All This and Heaven Too, and The Yearling.

Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944 ~ June Lockhart, Judy Garland & Lucille Bremer |  Judy garland, Hollywood, Holiday movie
Photo: pinterest.com Meet Me in St. Louis

In 1948, she won a Tony for Outstanding Performance by a Newcomer for her role in “For Love or Money.”

Although her appearances in film and on Broadway would have been a lucrative career n themselves, it was in television that she found most of her fame. In 1949 she accepted a role on The Ford Theater Hour. During the 1950s she would make 56 appearances on drama theater shows. In addition, she was in Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, and Wagon Train.

In 1951 she married John Maloney. In 1959 they divorced and that same year, she married John Lindsay whom she was married to until 1970.

But it was in the television show, Lassie from 1958-1964 that she became a household name as Ruth Martin, Timmy’s (Jon Provost) mother. The show was about the Martin family’s life on the farm and the heroics of Timmy’s dog Lassie.

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The 1960s continued to be very productive for her as an actress. She appeared in a variety of television shows, including the dramas Perry Mason, The Man from UNCLE, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the comedies Bewitched, Family Affair, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

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She also starred in two long-lasting sitcoms. From 1965-1968 she was Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space. On the show, a family with three children travel with Major Don West to colonize a new planet.  Dr. Zach Smith is a stowaway who tried to sabotage their mission by throwing their ship off course and ends up having to live with the people he thought were his enemies.

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With Bill Mumy
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In an interview with Bill Mumy who played her son Will on Lost in Space, he said that Lockhart always made time for the kids on the set. He said she kept them occupied between takes which she didn’t need to do. He said “she spent a lot of time nurturing Angela’s and my developing thought processes. Teaching us.”

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In 1968 she was offered a role as Dr. Janet Craig for the final two seasons of Petticoat Junction. Bea Benaderet, the star, passed away in 1968, and Janet filled in as a “mother” to the girls.

Although she would not take on any additional regular roles for sitcoms, she continued to keep busy through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. During these decades , she could be seen on Love American Style, Marcus Welby, Adam-12, Police Story, Ellery Queen, Happy Days, Magnum PI, Falcon Crest, Quincy, Murder She Wrote, Full House, Roseanne, Drew Carey, Grey’s Anatomy, and in Beverly Hills 90210 where she had a recurring role, along with 33 other series.

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On Happy Days
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Her last acting role was an animation movie, Bongee Bear and the Kingdom of Rhythm, in 2016. She passed away in 2019, apparently from old age.

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Lockhart was an interesting person as well as a successful actress. She hosted the Tournament of Roses parade for eight years and the Macy Thanksgiving parade for five years.

During my research, I learned several surprising things about her. She was an Ambassador for the California State Parks system. She won the NASA award for Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for inspiring the public about space exploration in 2013. She served as a panelist with several White House correspondents on a quiz show Who Said That in the fifties. That job provided her with an open invitation to attend White House briefings which she did and said were fun.

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Her hobbies included gold mining, antique motorcars, lighter-than-air aircraft, and learning about the Old West. She kept medical texts near her bed for nighttime reading. She was a member of a kite-flying club. She also loved old steam engines.

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Her husband bought her a 1923 Seagrave pumper fire engine named “Cordelia Delilah Lindsay” which she drove around even though it got two miles to the gallon. She actually had the largest parking space at the studio.

If all those facts aren’t interesting enough, in an interview with Bill Mumy by the Archive of American Television, he relayed that she loved rock and roll. In 1967, she hired the Allman Brothers Band (then called Hour Glass) to play at her house. She took Angela Cartwright and Bill to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. He also said that “in the 1980s she carried a picture of only one person in her wallet and it was David Bowie.”

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I’m truly impressed that with as busy as she was as an actress, she made time for both her two daughters and her television children, and enjoyed a ton of hobbies as well. It seems she had a joy for learning about new things and continued to add interests to her life. She was a great role model for all of us.

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Heigh-Ho Louis Nye!

Finishing off our “Men of November” series is Louis Nye.  If you watched television in the sixties, you will recognize Louis, but you might not know why.

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Born Louis Neistat in Connecticut in 1917, he was the son of parents who emigrated to the US from the Russian Empire and became naturalized citizens in 1911. Louis wanted to get involved in acting but his grades weren’t good enough for him to participate in the drama club.  He opted for work on WTIC Radio instead. He also joined the Hartford Players.

The work on local radio led to his decision to move to New York City to work on the radio, often on soap operas. Nye married songwriter Anita Leonard in 1940. Unlike many Hollywood couples, they remained married until Nye’s death.

**FILE** Steve Allen, third from left, and some of the original cast members of the popular 1950’s television show, “Steve Allen Show,” gathered in Beverly Hills, Calif. in this Oct. 4, 1990 file photo to honor Allen and to celebrate the re-broadcast of 100 episodes of his show on HA! TV Comedy Channel. They are, from left: Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Allen, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington Jr., and Bill Dana. Nye died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with lung cancer, his son, Peter Nye, told The Associated Press on Monday. He was 92. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, FILE)

World War II interrupted his career. He was assigned to run the recreation hall in Missouri. He would entertain troops and was able to meet Carl Reiner, who had a similar sense of humor, and who was also part of Special Services performing in shows across the Pacific.

With Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows Photo: nytimes.com

After the war ended, he returned to New York, getting jobs on television and appearing on Broadway. His first tv role was on The Admiral Broadway Revue in 1949. He appeared on several shows during the fifties but was best known for his work on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and the New Steve Allen Show. He became close to the entire cast which included Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington Jr., Dayton Allen, Gabriel Dell, and Bill Dana. Nye often portrayed wealthy citizens during the “Man on the Street” sketches. When he took on the role of Gordon Hathaway, the egotistical Country Club snob, saying “Hi-ho Steverino,” Allen often cracked up. When the show moved to Los Angeles, Nye went with it.

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His first recurring role was that of dentist Delbert Gray on The Ann Sothern Show in 1960 and 1961. He was very busy during the sixties, appearing on a variety of shows including The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, Mike Douglas, The Munsters, Jackie Gleason, and Phyllis Diller. From 1962-66, he would pop in on The Beverly Hillbillies as Sonny Drysdale, the spoiled stepson of banker Milburn Drysdale.

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In the seventies, he could be seen on shows such as Laugh-In, Love American Style, Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch, and Fantasy Island. He was offered a permanent role on Needles and Pins in 1973. The show only lasted for 14 episodes. The series was about the garment industry. Women’s clothing manufacture Nathan Davidson (Norman Fell) works with a group of employees including characters played by Nye and Bernie Kopell.  It didn’t receive great reviews and many of the writers said it talked about the garment industry but showed very little and was set in one small spot, inhibiting what plots were even available.

During those decades Nye would also get offers on the big screen from time to time but most of the roles were smaller cameo parts. However, he appeared with a lot of celebrities in these epics including Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau, and Jack Webb.

He also recorded several comedy albums using several of his characterizations. One of his most successful LPs was “Heigh-Ho Madison Avenue.” It parodied market research, advertising agencies and post-WWII society.  Some of the pieces on the album include “The Gray Flannel Blues,” “The Ten Commandments of Madison Avenue (Plus Big Bonus Commandments),” and “The Conspicuous Consumption Cantata.”

Asea on the Love Boat
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He continued to keep busy in the eighties on a variety of shows including Here’s Boomer, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, and St. Elsewhere.

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His last role was another recurring one where he played Jeff Garlin’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm from 2000-2005. Nye passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

I’m not sure what to think about Nye’s career.  I think in the right role, he would have excelled in a television comedy or a big screen epic which he never had the opportunity to do. He was multi-talented and appeared on Broadway, in clubs, and on the radio, and he created comedy albums as well as appearing in movies and television. However, I often read quotes of his where he said he only wanted to be funny at parties and always considered himself a serious actor. He was so brilliant and funny with his 15 accents and wide range of characterizations that he seemed pigeon-holed as a comedy character actor early in his career. I wondered if he was sad that he never had the chance to appear in a classic drama, or if he accepted his successful career for what it was, just being thankful he was in the entertainment industry for his entire working life.

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Since we cannot ask him directly, all we can do is tip our hats to him in appreciation for the decades of laughter and entertainment he provided for us. Thank you, Mr. Nye.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

The Phil Silvers Show: You May Never Get Rich, but You’ll Receive a Wealth of Humor

This month, we begin a new series, “We Salute You” and we will look at shows about the military. Our first series is The Phil Silvers Show a/k/a You’ll Never Get Rich.

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The sitcom debuted on CBS in 1955. The pilot was never aired, but the show was part of the television schedule until 1959, producing 143 episodes.

Nat Hiken created the series which ended up being nominated for Best Comedy Series every year it was on and winning that category in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In addition, Silvers won an Emmy for his performance, and Hiken won an Emmy for Best Director.

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Nat Hiken in the bowtie with Phil Silvers

In 1955, television was transitioning from New York to California. However, Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York. The earlier seasons were filmed at Dumont and later seasons moved to CBS studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.

The show was filmed like a play in front of a live audience. The cast members had to memorize the entire script. When Mike Todd guest starred in season two, he insisted that the show be filmed more like a movie. Takes were filmed out of sequence and multiple takes were allowed because there was no audience. The crew realized that this process was faster, cheaper, and easier for the actors, so the change was put in place permanently. The show was screened for the military though, and servicemen made responses that were used to make the show more realistic.

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Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) is a con man. He runs a motor pool at a small US Army Camp, Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who doesn’t trust Bilko, tries to stay on top of his schemes. Bilko tries to make money any way he can and is not above using the landing craft for midnight cruises, “borrowing” tanks, setting up poker games, and conniving with a local service station for spare parts for Jeep tires for his get-rich quick scams. Bilko has pulled the wool over Col Hall’s wife’s (Hope Sansberry) eyes and flatters her every chance he gets. Silvers said Bilko was so successful because “inside everyone is a con man wiggling to sneak out.”

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Although his men knew he could not be truly trusted, they were usually loyal to him and while he occasionally used them in a scheme, he typically made sure they were taken care of. Some of the situations Bilko found himself in included starting a mink farm, entering his platoon in a singing contest, investing in an ailing race horse, stealing a French chef’s family recipe, buying swampland, thinking there was uranium beneath Hall’s living room, and getting a hot racing tip but not being able to get his bet in on time.

For the fourth season, the camp moved from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. The move was explained that Bilko orchestrated the new location because he learned there was a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. The primary reason for the geographical change was so stars could guest on the show because the camp was now said to be close to Hollywood. Some of these celebrities included Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Dorothy McGuire, and Lucille Ball.

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Bing Crosby visits the base

In addition to the stars who were said to come from Hollywood, guest stars on the show included Charlotte Rae, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Tom Poston, Dina Merrill, Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, and Tina Louise.

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I was surprised by the large cast that was featured on this show as opposed to Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, or McHale’s Navy. Bilko’s comrades were Corporal Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Henshaw (Allan Melvin).

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Bilko with Barbella and Henshaw

The rest of the men included Corporal Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Sergeant Grover (Jimmy Little), Privates Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Gomez (Bernard Fein), Paparelli (Billy Sands), Mullen (Jack Healy), Fleischman (Maurice Brenner), Sugarman (Terry Carter) and Dillingham (Walter Cartier), as well as quartermaster Sergeant Pendelton (Ned Glass). Bilko even had a romantic interest in Sergeant Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser).

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Because the series had so many secondary cast members, it became too expensive to maintain, and that was the primary reason it was canceled. I was surprised it did not affect the ratings because there were a lot of cast members to follow from week to week.

The show started out on Tuesday nights the first season. Its competition was The Legend of Wyatt Earp and Milton Berle.  The ratings at first were not good and Camel Cigarettes, the sponsor, considering withdrawing. The network moved the show so it didn’t need to compete with Berle’s second-half hour. The ratings skyrocketed. The second and third seasons, it continued on Tuesday nights but was up against Cheyenne both years and against The Big Surprise on the second season and The Eddie Fisher Show the third season. The Phil Silvers Show continued to be in the top 30 for season two but fell below those rankings in season three. Season four found the show on Friday nights up against Man with a Camera and M Squad.  I would have thought that season might have the weakest competition but the show never recovered its higher ratings. However, Friday nights many people were out, not home watching television.

Another downfall with such a large cast is the personality conflicts that might occur. Apparently, Phil Silvers did not get along with Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield had trouble remembering his lines which frustrated the other actors; however, he got the most fan mail which Silvers resented. In his memoir, Silvers discussed this issue and wrote that Gosfield “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man.”

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Gosfield as Doberman

Phil Silvers would play the same type of con man on many sitcoms later including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, and the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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After its cancellation, CBS sold the show to NBC which was a great move on NBC’s part. The network made a ton of money on the show’s syndication because reruns were run for decades.

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DC Comics published comic books based on the show as well. From 1957-1960 there were 16 issues of a Sergeant Bilko comic book and 11 issues of a Private Doberman comic book.

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In 2009, the US Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring early television programs. This show was commemorated with an image of Sergeant Bilko.

I remember the show being on the air a lot while I was growing up, but I rarely see it now. I am going to rely on a fellow blogger to sum up the show. In a recent blog on neatorama.com from February 14, 2019, the show was described as follows:

It is my opinion that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) remains the single most underrated sitcom in television history and that Phil Silvers remains the most underrated comedian in that medium. This is really saying something because the series has indeed received great acclaim over the years. Even so, Silvers is just not given his proper due for creating the Bilko character. But it is Phil Silvers, his facial expressions, his bugle-call barking of orders, his complete manipulation of everyone on the base, and his wild schemes to make money that never seem to get old no matter how much you watch the episodes on video. The show is a great testament to the talents of Phil Silvers. With its complex plotlines and quickfire dialogue it’s still a treat to watch Silvers’s monumental character. The most oft-said line in the series must be “but, Sarge! as Bilko launches into another diabolical and, ultimately, flawed scheme to make money and dodge work.”

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Bilko isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not trustworthy. As he himself likes to say, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Maybe in this politically correct world we live in, making fun of the military is a taboo. It’s too bad because all the critics loved this show. If you want to check it out for yourself, the series is on DVD, so it is available for a week-end of binge watching; you can purchase individual seasons or the complete series.

Milton Frome: What a Character!

As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.

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His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.

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Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.

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The Adventures of Superman

During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

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I Love Lucy

His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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The Monkees

Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampets Mammoth Studios.

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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.

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The Jerry Lewis Show

At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.*

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Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actors professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Fromes personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!

*In June of 2021, I heard from Jane Wallace Casey who provided some additional information for us: “I am Milton Frome’s niece. His first wife was Barbara Wallace with whom he had his son Michael.”

Charles Lane: What a Character!

My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”

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However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.

He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.

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The Music Man

A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.

His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.

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You Can’t Take It with You

During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.

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I Love Lucy

During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.

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The Andy Griffith Show

The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.

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Gomer Pyle USMC

Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.

Photo: filmstarfacts.com
Petticoat Junction

Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and Dark Shadows.

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Bewitched

The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Soap

Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”

Photo: allmovie.com
TV Lands Award March 2005

Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.

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Homer Bedloe

Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.

At The Summit of Coolness: The Rat Pack on Television

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For some reason, the group including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. have been referred to the Rat Pack since the 1960s. The original rat pack was coined by Lauren Bacall about a group who gathered at her home whom she referred to as a pack of rats. The group we know as the Rat Pack preferred to call themselves the Clan or the Summit. Whatever they chose to call themselves, they had a hip, cool aura.

When one of the members of the group was scheduled to perform at Las Vegas, another one or two of the Clan would often show up as well. Because concert goers knew this, their shows tended to sell out. The Sands marquee promoted the possibility during one of Dean Martin’s shows when they put up “DEAN MARTIN – MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY.”

I thought it would be fun to look at the Rat Pack on television and see how much influence this group had. Let’s start with Old Blue Eyes.

FRANK SINATRA

Frank began his film career in the 1940s. In 1953 he had one of his most famous roles in From Here to Eternity. I was surprised to learn that he began appearing on television in the mid-1950s as well. He showed up in The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, The Producer’s Showcase in 1955, and The Thin Man in 1958.

In the 1970s we find Frank showing up on Laugh-In for several appearances.

He also sang a few lullabies on Make Room for Granddaddy, Danny Thomas’ revival of his hit show Make Room for Daddy from the 1950s. I was amazed at the talent of actors who guest starred on the reboot considering the short time it was on the air, but that is a topic for a future blog. On this episode, he bumps into Danny. His wife Kathy is not happy Danny is bringing home a guest for dinner on “hamburger night” but then she learns it’s Frank. He sings “All the Way” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for Danny’s grandson, Michael.

Photo: imdb.com

Jumping ahead a decade, we find Frank’s last two television roles, one as himself and one as a New York cop.

Frank had met Tom Selleck in Hawaii on one of his trips. In 1987 Frank appeared as Michael Doheny, a retired police sergeant on Selleck’s show, Magnum PI. Frank and his entourage traveled to Hawaii (although he worked for scale) and took over a floor at The Colony Surf in Diamond Head. In this episode he returns to help find the men who kidnapped his granddaughter. There were plans for Sinatra to return in season eight as well but Selleck cut back on the number of episodes he was filming, and the show was never written.

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In 1989 Sinatra showed up on Who’s the Boss as himself. Angela is invited to an exclusive party, but she gets waylaid by a work issue. Mona and Tony decide to take the tickets, but they can’t get in when they get there and then Angela shows up, which results in all three of them being thrown out of the gala. As Frank is showing up to sing, Tony gets to meet him and tell him he is his idol.

DEAN MARTIN

Not surprisingly Dean’s first appearance on television was on Make Room for Daddy in 1958. He portrayed himself. Danny calls on Dean to help him out with his daughter Terry who has been not very nice to a boy at school who likes her. Danny learns she is ignoring the boy because she has a crush on Dean. The plan works, and she and Donald get together.

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During the same year, Dean shows up on The Phil Silvers Show. Bilko (Silvers) is sent to Yucca Flats to work on a nuclear test program. Ritzik is amazed by one of the scientist’s machines. They skip the base and head for Las Vegas, so Rupert can demonstrate his gambling skills. Dean Martin is an unnamed gambler they run into.

In 1964 Martin got on the western bandwagon, appearing in Rawhide. Martin is stalking Hispanic cattlemen. His wife wants him to drop the assignment and retire to her family’s plantation with her, but he refuses, and she seeks help from Gil Favor, the boss of a never-ending cattle drive.

We see Martin pop up on a Bob Hope special in 1968 and a Red Skelton show in 1970.

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In 1978 Martin made an appearance on a show that surprised me: Charlie’s Angels. Martin plays the owner of the Tropicana Casino who hires the Angels to investigate several suspicious deaths that he thinks are part of a plot to make him think he’s going crazy. This was a two-part season opener and instead of singing, Martin got to display his magic skills. Naturally, he becomes romantically involved with one of the Angels, Sabrina played by Kate Jackson.

Fittingly, Dean’s last appearance was in the show Vega$ in 1979 as himself.

JOEY BISHOP

Bishop’s first role was not much of a stretch. He played a comedian on Richard Diamond in 1959. Bishop’s plays Joey Kirk and hires Diamond to determine who is following him and why, leading to a complicated murder plot.

He appeared in the DuPont Show of the Month in 1960 and The Dick Powell Theater in 1963.

Like most of the Rat Pack, Bishop made an appearance on Make Room for Daddy in 1961. As Joey Mason, he helps out Danny. Danny has flown from the east coast to the west coast and took two sleeping pills. However, there are four conventions in town and his assistant forgot to make him a reservation.

In 1965 he is Fred Jackson on an episode of Valentine’s Day starring Tony Franciosa and Jack Soo about a young eligible bachelor who lives with his valet, a poker-playing con artist who saved his life while they were in the Army.

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From 1961-1965, Joey stars in The Joey Bishop Show as Joey Barnes. Barnes is the host of a talk show. He has to deal with his personal and professional life as a celebrity. A lot of guest stars show up playing themselves as guests on his show or friends of his. The show produced 125 episodes. I have recently been watching it on Antenna TV where it now is shown every morning.

In 1967, Joey had a cameo on Get Smart. Max and 99 are sent on an assignment to rescue Don Carlos, the dictator of San Saludos. A general has imprisoned him and wants to marry his daughter. Max and 99 try to disguise themselves as flamenco dancers. When they are also thrown in jail, a guard, played by Bishop, attempts to bribe the firing squad.

In the 1970s we find Joey on Chico and the Man in 1976. He plays an inept burglar and when Ed doesn’t press charges, every lowlife crook appears at the business.

In 1981 Bishop appears as Dr. Burton on Trapper John MD.

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In 1985 Bishop again takes on the role of a comedian on Hardcastle and McCormick. That same year he also played another comedian on Murder She Wrote.

PETER LAWFORD

Drama shows were very popular in the early days of television. Lawford appeared in quite a few of these shows from 1953-1965.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In 1954 he took on the role of Bill Hastings on Dear Phoebe. The show was on the air for two years, resulting in 32 episodes. Hastings works for a daily newspaper in a large city. He becomes the author of a lonely hearts column and advises his readers as “Phoebe” while trying to deal with his own issues in his personal life.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

From 1957-1959, he was Nick Charles on the television version of The Thin Man. The show was very popular with 723 episodes filmed. Similar to the films, Nick marries Nora and lives in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment in New York. He was previously a private detective and many of his underworld friends get him involved in mysteries he has to solve.

Lawford appeared as himself on an episode of Jack Benny’s show in 1961.

He also played himself on The Patty Duke Show in 1965. Patty is selected to find a star to perform at the high school prom. Sammy Davis Jr. also guest stars on the episode.

Photo: imdb.com

Apparently, Sammy and Peter enjoyed working together because they guest starred on an episode of The Wild Wild West in 1966. Lawford is a wealthy ranch owner and Davis is a hired hand Jeremiah.

While Bishop showed up on Get Smart, Lawford chose the more realistic I Spy in 1967.

Like Sinatra, he also appeared on Laugh-In but must have enjoyed it more because he was on ten different episodes.

During the 1970s, Lawford shows up on a variety of television show genres. He would be on the western The Virginian in 1971, Born Free about Elsa the lion in 1974, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, the bizarre comedy High Cliffe Manor, the crime drama Hawaii Five-0, the dramady Supertrain, and The Jeffersons.

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In addition, he was featured on Bewitched in 1972. Lawford played Harrison Woolcott, a client of Darrin and Larry’s. Sam’s cousin Serena decides she wants to date him and try the mortal life for a while.

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He made several appearances during seasons four and five of The Doris Day Show. As Dr. Peter Lawrence, he begins a romance with Doris in 1972-1973.

SAMMY DAVIS JR

Sammy probably appeared in the most television shows. Like Peter, he began in drama shows and guest starred in several episodes of General Electric Theater.

He then appeared in The Lawman in 1961, Frontier Circus, Cain’s Hundred, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, and Hennessey in 1962.

In 1963 he was on Ben Casey.

Like the other Rat Pack actors, he was on Make Room for Daddy in 1963 and the revival Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970.

As mentioned before, he guest starred in The Patty Duke Show in 1965 and The Wild Wild West in 1966, both with Peter Lawford.

Photo: pinterest.com

In 1967, he showed up on I Dream of Jeannie as himself. Tony tries to get Sammy Davis Jr to sing for General Peterson’s party. When he is already booked, Jeannie tries to help by duplicating himself, so he can be in two places at one time.

Davis also took a role in The Beverly Hillbillies in 1969.

Photo: tvinsider.com

The same year he took on his first of three roles on Mod Squad. His first role was a black priest who becomes the target of a bad guy after the church suspends him. The hood is afraid he will reveal his confession now that he no longer is part of the church. The next episode he appeared on was in the role of Billy Lee Watson, a recovered drug addict. He runs a half-say house and is accused of rape of a man’s daughter who he has been trying to help. Her father accused Billy of the rape and after investigating, it turned out Billy was her actual father.  The last episode of Mod Squad he appeared on in 1970 had Davis portraying Willie Rush and actor and friend of Linc’s. He says someone is trying to kill him.

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The 1970s continued to be a productive time for Davis on television. He would go on to appear in The Name of the Game in 1970, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in 1972, nine episodes of Laugh-In, and like his friend Dean Martin, an episode of Charlie’s Angels in 1977. He plays himself on Charlie’s Angels. When he hosts a charity event that includes a celebrity look alike contest, an attempt is made to kidnap him. The Angels take on the job of his bodyguards and Bosley becomes his chauffeur.

The 1980s were also busy times for him. He appeared as himself on several Norman Lear shows including Archie Bunker’s Place and The Jeffersons. He also could be seen on Fantasy Island, Pryor’s Place, Gimme a Break, The Cosby Show and Hunter in the 1980s.

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One thing that surprised me was his roles on One Life to Live and General Hospital. I have seen a few stars like Carol Burnett who chose to appear on a soap opera. Davis had a recurring role on General Hospital; he didn’t seem to me to be the type of actor who would be interested in a soap opera, but he did receive an Emmy nomination for his role on General Hospital. Sammy was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Cosby Show.

While Joey Bishop hosted some of the Emmy Award shows, I did not find any nominations for the other members of the Rat Pack.

Photo: peoplequiz.com

Overall, I was surprised how extensive the television careers were for the Summit members. I think of them more in their performing or movie careers and did not expect them to see that they guest starred in so many shows and starred in some of their own television series. Check out some of these shows or make a batch of popcorn and watch the ensemble in the original Ocean’s Eleven.

Meet Sam Drucker: The Heart of Hooterville

Today we get to meet Sam Drucker, the jack of all trades in Hooterville.

sam cash register

Frank Cady began his career in radio. He then moved on to stage and film. Frank would appear in 53 films during his life, including Young Man with a Horn, Father of the Bride, and Rear Window. In the mid-1950s, he started appearing in television series. He showed up in many shows for the next decade, including 78 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as Doc Williams.

sam drucker 3 shows

In 1963, he accepted the role that would make him a household name, Sam Drucker. From 1963-1971 he would appear as Drucker in three separate sitcoms: Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres, 320 episodes in all.

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Sam is the heart, and brains, of the Hooterville society. He owns Drucker’s General Store. All the townspeople gather at the store to share gossip, read the news, pick up their mail, and buy their necessities. He gets some weird requests. How about nail polish that doubles as a bathtub sealant? Sam gives credit because he’s a nice guy and dislikes reminding his regulars that they are accumulating a large tab. Joe Carson can be seen playing checkers with some of the local men from time to time. We know Joe is probably hiding out from Kate, so she doesn’t put him to work. Charley and Floyd would never consider making a Cannonball run without a stop at Drucker’s store.

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Sam is part of the group, but he is not only intelligent but wise. He understands the Hooterville folks, but he also understands how sophisticated people view Hooterville folks. Sam is content to live there, making a modest living. He sleeps in the back room of the store. In a review in the New York Times, Sam was described as “a bit of a straight man to the colorfully zany folk of Hooterville.”

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Sam is a busy guy: he’s the postmaster; the constable, the Justice of the Peace; the Superintendent of Schools; the editor and publisher of the World Guardian, the town’s weekly newspaper; the town water commissioner; owns a “bank,” which is a cashbox under the counter; a fireman in the volunteer fire department; and conducts music while playing drums in the Hooterville band.  Where else would Hooterville residents vote than at Drucker’s store? When Sam switches from grocer to postman, he dons his official postal worker’s hat. Sam claimed to fish and camp in his free time, but I have no idea when he might have had any free time. No wonder the guy never got married.

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It’s no secret to us that he and Kate Bradley are in love with each other. They have a very strong and special friendship. We know they are just waiting for the girls to grow up before they marry and enjoy the rest of their life together.

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When asked about the secret to playing Sam Drucker, Cady replied that he just played himself. Like many of the stars I’ve profiled in my blog, Frank understood the advantages and disadvantages of playing Sam Drucker. He explained it this way: “You get typecast. I’m remembered for those shows and not some pretty good acting jobs I did other times. I suppose I ought to be grateful for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t be remembered at all. I’ve got to be one of the luckiest guys in the world.”

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Though Frank retired in 1977, he did come out of retirement to film Return to Green Acres in 1990. In discussing the movie on the CBS News, Frank defended Green Acres. He said, “The only thing I resent is people calling it a corny show. It’s highly sophisticated, and it’s timeless, as I think all the reruns are establishing.

Sam Drucker is an all-around good guy. Who wouldn’t want to spend some time hanging out in his store. He can discuss politics with Oliver Douglas, how to treat cows with Fred Ziffel, or the latest fashions with the Bradley girls. In one article he was criticized for being smart, yet not finding it odd that Arnold Ziffel was a pig he talked to. I don’t think that’s surprising; if you watch most of the episodes, you realize that Sam and Arnold are probably the smartest guys in Hooterville. That is not a negative reference to most of the population; it’s a compliment to Arnold and Sam.

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I did not enjoy The Beverly Hillbillies. I did like Petticoat Junction a lot, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written shows on television. I never get tired of watching the reruns because I find something new in them every time. Like Sam, they appear simple at first look, but have great depth when you spend time in Hooterville. Sam Drucker, it’s a pleasure to know you.

We All Love Gracie: The Burns and Allen Show

I am excited that today is my 100th blog, and I have saved a very special show for the occasion. Today you learn everything you ever wanted to know about the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, one of my all-time favorites.

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The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered on 12 October 1950, was one of the first comedy series to make the successful transition from radio to television. When George and Gracie started in show business, Gracie was the “straight man,” but George figured out quickly that the audience responded to her immediately. They switched roles and they never veered from the formula again. The Burns and Allen Show was the first domestic comedy set in a real couple’s home and the first television series to depict the home life of a working show business couple.

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CBS was lucky enough to have Burns and Allen on their radio and television networks. In 1930, an NBC executive told them the public would not accept them and Gracie’s voice was too squeaky! William Paley was a huge fan of their comedy and wanted them to try this new medium. The television show was very similar to their radio show. One of the first tag lines for the show was “You’ve HEARD them on radio, now SEE them on television.”

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Ralph Levy was the first producer/director. Previously he had worked on variety shows and sports events. When he and George first met, it was not a great first impression. He thought it was the craziest concept he had ever heard for a show. George considered him a bit of a young punk. They put aside their differences and not only became close friends but greatly respected each other’s business decisions. Ralph would leave in 1953 to work for Jack Benny. When Jack did not have weekly shows, Ralph was working for both comedians, but the jobs became too much for one person.

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Ralph Levy with George and Gracie

The show was broadcast on Thursdays from October of 1950 until March of 1953. From March of 1953 until September of 1958 when it went off the air, it was on Monday nights. Originally, it was staged live and broadcast every other week. In the fall of 1952, they decided on a weekly format. Shows debuting in New York were considered better commercial successes, so the first six episodes were set in the Mansfield Theatre in New York. The West Coast would not see the show until two weeks after the East Coast did. A kinescope was filmed with a 16 mm camera. Duplicates were made, and these shows were sent on kinescopes across the country. In December of 1950, the cast was allowed to go back home to California to film the rest of the series.

In 1951, George would broadcast all over the US with the placement of coaxial cables. George realized filming the episodes would allow for syndication of the show. The show continued for eight years, producing 239 filmed episodes.

Burns and Allen started McCadden Productions. It was named for the street where George’s brother Willy, one of the writers of the show, lived on. Willy was also their manager. They employed more than 300 people and would go on to produce many shows including Mister Ed and the Bob Cummings Show. George truly valued everyone’s opinion and anyone, even the janitor, could make comments and suggestions for improvements.

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It was a grueling schedule to stick to for eight years. George and the writers met Monday morning. Gracie had wardrobe fittings and studied the newest script. They had rehearsals on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays were typically 12-hour days with filming beginning after another rehearsal. Thursday was Gracie’s only day off. The writers met Thursday as well as all day Friday. On Friday Gracie went shopping for her next show’s wardrobe. George devoted Saturday to narrowing down the script to fit the shooting time. On Sunday George and Gracie met with the director at 10 am to go over the script. Sunday afternoon and evening (as well as other scattered times during the week) Gracie studied and memorized the script.

Carnation Milk became a sponsor immediately and would stay with the show for all eight years. Carnation was like another character on the series. Actors were pitchmen for the products and commercial breaks were often part of the show. Gracie had their milk in full view in her kitchen. Their prop man who helped with this for all eight years was Nat Thurman.

George took his writers off to Palm Springs to work on the new show. The head writer was Paul Henning who would later go on to write, produce, and direct many classic sitcoms including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. The other writers were Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Willy Burns and George. The writers were truly funny.  One day Jack Benny sent George a telegram from London.  It just read “What’s new?” George and his writers took an entire afternoon to answer it. They told Jack everything that was new including restaurant menus.

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Paul Henning

The show would often begin with George doing a monologue with his trusty cigar that would explain the beginning of the plot to the viewers. George frequently spoke to the audience during the show. In later years, he would retire to his study to watch the show on his television, therefore knowing what was going on in his absence. The rest of the cast was oblivious to the fact he could do so.

The first show had a very simple plot which was the key to many of their episodes. Gracie and Blanche want to go to the movies. The boys want to go to the fights. George makes up a complicated card game that doesn’t really make sense. He thought the nonsense rules would confuse the girls who would get mad and quit. Instead, Gracie thought the rules made perfect sense and she won the game, dragging the boys to the movies.

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The Burns lived at 312 Maple Drive in Beverly Hills and their best friends and next-door neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton, lived at 320 Maple Dr. The sets were copied from the Burns’ actual home. A shot of their real home was used on the show for exterior scenes. George continued to live in the house even when they became quite wealthy and George was still living there when he passed away at age 100.The house still exists today. They were not arrogant people. Gracie continued to wear the same $20 engagement ring George bought for her when they had no money.

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The edge of the Burns’ swimming pool which was sometimes seen in the live episodes was an eighteen-inch tank of water which was designed to be quickly rolled on and off the stage. Lighting tricks were employed to create the illusion that the shallow tank had depth. George used the pool in his asides to the audience. One time he was supposed to have fallen in, and he showed up dry and made a comment about how quick things happen on television. Later he has to go into the pool again. He once again is seen completely dry, but this time he says nothing and he wrings a bunch of water out of his cigar.

Starting in the fall of 1955, Burns and Allen would often reappear after the end of the episode, before a curtain decorated with the names and locations of the various theaters where they headlined in their vaudeville days. They would perform one of their routines, often discussing Gracie’s relatives.

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The theme music was “Love Nest,” composed by Otto Harbach and Louis Hirsch. It was written for a musical comedy show, “Mary.” There are lyrics, but only the instrumental version was used on the Burns and Allen Show.

Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell

Several staff members transitioned from radio with George and Gracie. Bill Goodwin continued to play himself, providing announcing duties. When he left in the second season to host his own show, Harry Von Zell took over the announcing duties. In real-life, Harry Von Zell had written several episodes of Wagon Train in 1957. The writers incorporated it into the show by having Harry pitch George ideas for western-themed shows. That year, George dressed like a cowboy from time to time and would say things like, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

Bea Benaderet and Larry Keating

Bea Benaderet also moved from radio to television. She was Blanche Morton for the run of the show, but she went through several husbands (Hal March, John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating). George was extremely creative in his interaction with the audience. Hal March did the first seven shows; John Brown took over the for the next ten months; and Fred Clark was Harry through 1953 for 74 episodes. In a program “Morton Buys Iron Deer/Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses,” Blanche is holding a catalog ready to hit Harry who spent $200 on an iron deer. George walks on stage and stops the action. He introduces Larry Keating and tells Bea that he is her new husband. They have a small chat about each other’s work. George stops them and says if they are that nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. He gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and hits Harry when he re-enters the scene.

Fred Clark, Hal March and John Brown

Bea and Gracie were close friends. Blanche truly loved Gracie and was extremely loyal to her. They laughed continuously. Bea also loved Gracie in their personal lives.

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George and Gracie’s daughter Sandra and son Ronnie also appeared in the show. In later years, Ronnie would become a regular. Ronnie became very popular; he and Gracie often covered for each other with George, and Ronnie was often busy trying to get her out of a bad situation. When he joined in 1955, the show moved back to New York. Harry Morton gets a temporary job there, so the Burns family went too. This change called for new sets, including the hotel where they all were living and Rumpelmayer’s sandwich and ice cream shop.

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Ronnie Burns

In the seventh year, the cast went back to Los Angeles. Fred de Cordova, who had taken over for Ralph Levy, left after three years to direct movies. Rod Amateau was brought on for the final two years.  In many ways, the seventh season was their most creative—this is when the “magic” TV screen appeared.

While the ensemble around them was incredible, the heart of the show was Gracie. Gracie always said that her character believed she was the smart one and everyone else was a little off. There was always a touch of reality in her logic. Gracie played her that way and the audience felt protective of her.

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Gracie was a bit of a perfectionist, but no one worked harder than she did. If she had to perform a task on the show, she did it. In a New York Times article, she commented, “It makes me furious to see an actor go through the motion of writing an address on a piece of paper. They scribble it off in a second and you know they couldn’t have written anything.” Whenever Allen performed a task on the show, whether it was writing a name, sewing a handkerchief, or chopping up vegetables, she meticulously performed the duty while reciting her dialogue.

Everyone around her said she never blew her lines and was in almost every scene. George described her work ethic in his book I Love Her That’s Why: “On the set she gives absolutely no trouble and makes no demands. She arrives on time, does the job, jokes with the crew, and in general behaves less like a star than any actress I know.”

During the eight years that the show was on the air, Gracie Allen never appeared in the same outfit twice, and she had three costume changes in some episodes. Gracie Allen chose her own wardrobe. Jane Vogt was the wardrobe mistress for the rest of the cast. Bertha French was the show’s hair stylist and Gene Roemer did make-up. Gracie trusted Gene so much she typically slept while he got her ready.

The writers knew there were a few rules for writing for Gracie. Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett sum them up in their book Say Goodnight Gracie!: “(1) She thinks she is smart. (2) Keep her reactions consistent from week to week. (3) Her logic was illogical and her illogic was logical and then her reasoning worked.” Examples of her logic are: “Shorter cars use so much more gas. With a short car, you have to travel further to go the same distance.”  When the delivery boy tells Gracie he’s in a hurry because Mrs. Vanderlip is waiting for a chicken to make sandwiches, Gracie tells him she’ll wait a long time because it took her 2 years to teach their canary to sing.  Gracie keeps her clocks unplugged to save electricity. When she wants to know the time, she plugs it in.  Or take the time she froze a bunch of water; it will save her time when she needs it because she just has to defrost it.

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George gave Gracie most of the credit. Once he commented “You see, to be a straight man you have to have a talent, you have to develop this talent, then you gotta marry her like I did.” The audience liked George because they intuitively realized he adored Gracie.

George was the calm in the middle of the storm around him. Because he always knew what was going on, he remained relaxed when everyone else was confused. And the audience loved the fact that he shared information with them, so they were in on the fun.

Allen announced her retirement on February 17, 1958—effective at the end of the current season. Burns and Allen filmed their last show June 4, 1958.  The plot of the final program was Ronnie fearing he was going to lose his girlfriend to an exchange student. The filming was an emotional experience, although nothing was said about it being Allen’s last performance in the show itself. At the wrap party, Allen took a token sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea, and said “Okay, that’s it.” After a brief last look around the set, she said, “And thank you very much, everyone.”

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“She deserved a rest,” Burns said. He explained that she had been working all her life and her lines were the hardest to learn. She had to memorize every word because some lines didn’t make sense.

Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. The show received a total of twelve Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress.

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Inspired writing complemented the comic performances, making Burns and Allen an all-time classic. The show holds up remarkably well. The writers purposely kept topical and political humor out of the scripts. They also made sure there were no specific references to the 1950s, so the show did not sound dated in reruns. Their words can say it much better than I ever could, so here are some examples of their creative scripts.

Ralph Hanley: I’m here to help you with your income taxes.

Gracie: Oh, we’re glad, we got tired of paying them all ourselves.

Ralph: For medical you put down a full-length mirror, $50.

Gracie: That’s right, I got it for my father, so he won’t get pneumonia.

Ralph: How’s that?

Gracie: Well, you see, before he only had a half-length mirror, so when he went outside he forgot his pants.

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George: Would you ever think that such a beautiful mink coat would come from such an unattractive little thing that looks like a weasel?

Gracie: Oh, George, you’re just fishing—you know I think you’re handsome.

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Blanche: I just got a phone call from Lucille Vanderlip and she told me Margie Bates got a beautiful diamond bracelet from her husband.

Gracie: I can’t believe it.

Blanche: Why not?

Gracie: If Lucille’s husband gave another woman a diamond bracelet, you’d think she’d be the last one to mention it.

Blanche: Er . . . Gracie . . . you misunderstood me.

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Gracie: The night before last, George came home from the office feeling terrible.

Blanche: Probably flu.

Gracie: No, he drove the car.

My top ten favorite shows are:

#13, March 15, 1951: The Vanderlips are having a party. Gracie was hoping they would invite the Mortons but there is no room, so she and George decide not to go so they can spend time with Blanche and Harry. Once Burns and Allen decline, the Vanderlips call the Mortons because they now have room, so the Mortons happily attend.

#17, February 12,1953: On the train home from San Francisco, Gracie thinks one of the passengers is planning on murdering his wife. She reports it and confuses the cops who believe Harry Morton has killed Blanche who is missing. Blanche actually is off on a shopping trip.

#38, August 3, 1953: Gracie is a witness to a bank heist. Johnny Velvet, the gangster behind the crime (played by one of my favorites, Sheldon Leonard), kidnaps Gracie so she cannot testify in court. After a couple hours, he takes her back because she is driving him crazy. He decides to kidnap George instead, but his men keep nabbing the wrong guy.

#40, August 17, 1953: Gracie is shopping in a department store when she trips. The store wants to settle quickly before it turns into a big lawsuit. Gracie thinks they are trying to sue her for putting a hole in the carpet. The adjustor meets her and assumes the store is in bigger trouble because she now has a head injury.

#79, April 5, 1954: Gracie, known for denting the car, explains the new ding when she tells him an elephant sat on the car. No one believes her. When the circus owner comes to the house to bring her a check for damages, George thinks it’s a prank to convince him, so he tears up the check. George finally realizes an elephant did indeed sit on the car.

#90, August 2, 1954: George and Gracie decide they want to see a movie with some friends. They are having a tough time coming up with a movie that someone in the group has not already seen. They finally find one everyone can agree on, but then someone else stops by to go with the group and they have seen it.

#118, January 3, 1955: Gracie is talking with a woman in the post office. She wants to retrieve a letter she mailed asking her husband for a divorce. She wrote it when he refused to let her mother come visit. Harry Von Zell overhears part of the discussion and assumes Gracie is divorcing George because he won’t let her mother come. He finally convinces George to invite Gracie’s mother. When George learns the actual story, he fires Harry again.

#192, June 4, 1956: George has given his coat to Harry Von Zell to use because he’s taking a date to the Stork Club. George gets locked into the steam room at the club and can’t get out till morning. He tells Gracie why he didn’t come home, but someone returns his coat from the Stork Club, so she thinks he is lying. He has to bring over everyone who had been involved in getting him out of the steam room to convince her he is telling the truth.

#213, October 29, 1956: Gracie misunderstands a conversation, thinking that the Mortons are moving to Pasadena. Gracie decides she and George will move too and tries to sell their house. As a subplot, Ronnie’s fraternity initiation requires him to say the exact opposite of what people expect to hear for a day. Having Gracie and Ronnie there all day truly confuses George.

#219, Ronnie is dating a girl he met at the store where he works. He leaves his coat at her house and her mother drops it off for him. Gracie assumes the mother is Ronnie’s girlfriend. She decides to get Ronnie fired from his job so he is no longer working with the older woman. She also mentions his seeing an older woman to his real girlfriend, not knowing who she is. Luckily, George sees this on his study television, so he is able to straighten out the mess.

If you have never seen the show, you might want to check out some of these on YouTube. There are also numerous DVD collections from their show specifically to sets of golden age classics variety packs. You can also catch their show on Antenna TV from 5-6 am every weekday, 4-5 am Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as 9 pm Saturday night and 11 pm Sunday night.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.