Verna Felton Saves the Day

We are winding up our blogs for May, and I have a confession to make. For some reason, I failed to notice that there were five Mondays in May, so when I published my blog last week, I realized that I was short one blog. While scrambling to find a topic that still fit in with the other shows we learned about this month, it occurred to me that this week’s actress appeared on The Ann Sothern Show and I Love Lucy. She was also part of the cast of December Bride and Pete and Gladys. So, today we will learn about the woman behind Hilda Crocker: Verna Felton.

Photo: imdb.com

Verna Felton was born in Salinas, California in 1890. Verna entered show business at the young age of nine. Her father died just before her ninth birthday. He was a doctor, but he kept no records of payments due, and there was little cash in his account. Verna had performed at a local benefit for flood victims, where she caught the attention of a road show manager. He offered Verna a job, and after the death of her father, her mother accepted the job on her behalf. Verna grew up involved in theater community.

Photo: agecalculator.com

She was called “Little Verna Felton, the Child Wonder. By age 13 she was performing with the Allen Stock Company that toured the western United States and British Columbia in Canada. By age 20, she had a play written specifically for her by Herbert Bashford called “The Defiance of Doris.”

Photo: wix.com

She continued building her stage resume, acting in a variety of plays.

In 1923 Verna married Lee Millar who conducted the band in the acting troop. He was also a movie actor in the thirties and forties. Verna and Lee were married until his death in 1941. Their son Lee Carson Millar was born in 1924 and would also go on to become an actor who appeared on many of the most popular shows in the fifties and sixties.

From about 1930-1950, Verna could be heard on the radio. Her voice could be detected on a variety of shows including Red Skelton, Hattie Hirsch on Point Sublime, Dennis Day’s mother on his show, and a regular on both The Abbott and Costello Show and The Great Gildersleeve.

Photo: wiki.com

After transitioning from stage to radio, it was no surprise that Verna’s career in the forties and early fifties was spent on the big screen.

Television was a natural progression, and, in 1951, Verna had her first tv roles: as a nurse on Amos and Andy and as Mrs. Day on the Enzio Pinza Show. She continued her radio role as Dennis Day’s mother on his television show in 1952.

With Lucille Ball

During the early fifties, you could catch her on many of the most popular shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, The Bob Hope Show, The Halls of Ivy, I Married Joan, and Where’s Raymond?

Verna would become best known as Hilda Crocker. She played that character on December Bride from 1954-1959 and again on Pete and Gladys during the 1960-61 season, a total of 182 episodes. She was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1958 and 1959. In both years, she lost to Ann B. Davis for Love That Bob.

With Spring Byington on December Bride
Photo: pinterest.com

Between the two series, she made appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Miami Undercover, and The Jack Benny Show. She also accepted roles on a handful of shows after her life as Hilda, including My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and Dennis the Menace.

Felton had voiced several animation characters for Disney including the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book.

After voicing these fun characters, it was only natural for her to find a television animation character to play, and she found the perfect one in Pearl Slaghoople, Wilma’s mother on The Flintstones. Pearl looked a lot like Wilma but not as young or slim. She originally had red hair like her daughter which later became gray. She did not care for Fred and didn’t think he was good enough for Wilma and often nagged him to do better.

In 1966 Verna passed away from a stroke. Walt Disney would die a few hours later. About 25% of the movies Verna made were for Walt. Jungle Book, the last movie she made for him would debut a year after the two stars died.

Fred has a hard time loving his mother-in-law. Hence the phrase he said  repeatedly 'I love my mother-… | Flintstones, Classic cartoon characters,  Flintstone cartoon

Although Verna’s television career only spanned fourteen years, she appeared in many of the era’s best shows.  She did Broadway, radio, cinema, and animation as well and had a very full and successful career. It was fun getting to know Verna Felton a bit better.

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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Photo: radiospirits.com

It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, and I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role, leading to 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard as L&T Productions were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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Photo: dga.com

In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still on the air today.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discussed Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

The Herb Garden Germination

Photo: americanprofile.com

As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.