This month we are taking a look at our favorite unusual pet sitcoms. We start our series with a show that began in 1961: The Hathaways.
This one-season show was on ABC. Elinore (Peggy Cass) and Walter (Jack Weston) Hathaway were a suburban Los Angeles couple who took in a trio of chimps (Candy, Charlie, and Enoch) which they were surrogate parents for. Walter was a real estate agent, while Elinore looked after the chimps. The chimps had their own bedroom and a full wardrobe of children’s clothing. Before becoming sitcom stars, the chimps had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, and a variety of commercials.
Rounding out the cast were the great Mary Grace Canfield as housekeeper Amanda; Elinore’s best friend and neighbor, Thelma Brockway (Barbara Perry); theatrical agent Jerry Roper (Harvey Lembeck); and Belle Montrose who was another neighbor (and in real life was the mother of Steve Allen). Montrose’s only other acting credits were for the two Disney movies, Son of Flubber and The Absentminded Professor.
Eleven different writers wrote the 26 episodes and four men took on the role of director. The show was on Friday night before The Flintstones but it went up against Clint Eastwood’s western, Rawhide.
The storylines were similar to other sitcoms from the early sixties. In the first episode, the Brockways move in next door and don’t like pets. In the succeeding episodes, Elinor winds up in jail for an unpaid parking ticket that Charlie pocketed before she saw it, Elinor is worried when they leave the chimps with a babysitter while they vacation in Palm Springs, and Elinor and Walter try to find their housekeeper a boyfriend.
It sounds like the type of show that would have been very popular in that era, but ratings were extremely low. In 1982, critics Castleman and Podrazik called the show “possibly the worst series ever to air on a network,” due to the “utterly degrading” premise, bad scripts, inept production, and the “total worthlessness” of the program. The pair wrote seven books about pop culture.
The show was specifically created to star the Marquis Chimps, and when that was shared in 1961, TV columnist Bill Fiset, wrote, “Heaven help us all? It may be that by the time you read this I’ll have taken the gas pipe, a victim of sheer frustration from trying to work as a serious essayist on a subject matter put into the hands of monkeys.”
Star Peggy Cass had mixed feelings. She admitted that she took the job for the money because she did not think the pilot would sell. While the show was on the air, she did an interview, stating that “Those chimps are natural comics. And believe me, they’re hard to top.”
Cass would go on to a variety of television series and guest appearances. She was a regular on the game show circuit and might best be remembered for more than 270 episodes of To Tell the Truth. Weston also stayed very busy on television till the 1980s. And the chimps? Don’t feel too bad for them. They continued to show up on variety shows, including numerous appearances with Ed Sullivan. Ironically, they appeared on more Ed Sullivan episodes than they did their own sitcom. When they weren’t working, they could relax on their Las Vegas ranch. I’m sure they were treated to many luxuries there since they were making a quarter of a million dollars at the peak of their career!
As we finish up our “Men of August” series, I think I’ve saved the best for last. Today we look at the career of a man who had more than 400 acting credits during six decades: William Schallert.
Schallert was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, Edwin, was a drama critic for the Los Angeles Times and his mother, Elza, was a magazine writer and radio host. She interviewed some of the most famous people in the entertainment industry. Being in LA, he went to high school with Alan Hale Jr., Nanette Fabray, and Micky Rooney.
Schallert was also a composer, pianist, and singer. His first love had been music, and he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg. Unfortunately, he realized that some of the other students were more adept at hearing the music in their heads than he could and that would inhibit his making a living from composing.
William decided to be an actor and registered at the University of Southern California. He left school temporarily to join the Army Air Corps as a fighter pilot during WWII. Following the war, he returned to school, graduating in 1946. That same year he was one of the cofounders of the Circle Theater. Sydney Chaplin was one of his friends at the theater, and in 1948, his brother Charlie directed Schallert in a production of W. Somerset’s Maugham’s “Rain.”
From 1947-1951, William appeared in 14 big-screen films, including Mighty Joe Young in 1949. He would go on to accept roles in seventy more films during this career, but for this blog, I’m going to concentrate on his television career, or we could be writing and reading for days.
Schallert married Leah Waggner in 1949. They were together for their entire lives, dying a year apart from each other. Waggner was also an actress and appeared with him in several episodes including The Patty Duke Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
During his career, he appeared in a lot of crime shows and westerns, but he could also do comedy as seen by his appearances on Burns and Allen, Father Knows Best, The Jack Benny Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, That Girl, The Partridge Family, and Love American Style. Some of these were his favorite appearances.
On the Partridge Family, he was able to use some of his music skills as Red Woodloe, a folk singer. The episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, “A Word a Day,” got a huge laugh for Schallert. It was similar to the episode when Rob is convinced that he and Laura got the wrong baby and Ritchie belongs to another family who he invites over and opens the door only to find Greg Morris, an African American. In this one, Ritchie begins using profanity and they assume it’s one of his new friends and invite the parents over to see what type of uncouth people they are and Rob opens the door to find William Schallert, a reverend.
The admiral he played on Get Smart was one of his favorite all-time characters. William said, “The admiral was a charming character.”
From 1979-1981, Schallert was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and was active in SAG issues and committees afterward.
During his six decades of acting, Schallert had recurring roles on eleven different series. The first was The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1957. This show was set in the Louisiana Territory in 1830 and featured the people that Jim Bowie met there.
In 1958, William became part of the cast of Hey, Jeannie about Jeannie MacLennan, a Scottish woman, who has immigrated to New York and her adjustment to city life.
1959 found him on Phillip Marlowe as Lt Manny Harris. The same year he also began portraying Leander Pomfrit, a teacher on The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis. That role lasted three years.
It was in 1963 that he received the role that made him a household name. As Martin Lane, Patty’s father and Kathy’s uncle, on The Patty Duke Show. The show was on the air for three seasons, producing 104 episodes. Martin was the patient, wise father who knew when to give advice and when to step back and watch a small failure for a learning experience.
He and Patty became very close in real life. In an interview with the Closer Weekly, Schallert discussed their relationship. “When I think of her, she’s family as far as I’m concerned. We had a very close relationship. Whenever I saw her it was always like greeting one of my kids. She just had a wonderful quality and I got to know her over the years and she was admirable in a lot of ways. She really did her best to raise her own kids and she certainly had very little help in her own life to do that, but she was very mature and she did a lot of growing up very fast. People take that kind of thing for granted far too easily, and she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for that.”
When the Patty Duke Show ended, Schallert began doing voiceover work in commercials and with his warm and friendly manner, it was a lucrative career for him for two decades, including the voice of Milton the Toaster for Pop Tart commercials. He said it was wonderful, “All you had to do was go in there and do it, you didn’t’ have to put makeup on, you didn’t have to learn anything. I also had a knack for timing.”
Although he had a successful voiceover career, his acting career was far from over. He would show up as a regular cast member on five more series before his career ended: The Nancy Walker Show, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour, The Waltons, The New Gidget Show, and The Torkelsons. I especially loved his casting in Nancy Drew. When I read those books as a grade-school kid, he was exactly as I pictured Nancy’s dad Carson Drew in my mind.
His last role was on Two Broke Girls in 2014. In that year, he announced he was suffering from peripheral neuropathy and had to wear leg braces some but also had to rely on a wheelchair most of the time. He passed away two years later from an undisclosed condition.
It sounds like Schallert had an amazing life. Growing up in Los Angeles and learning from his parents about theater and radio must have been a lot of fun. He said those connections led to a lot of opportunities like going to Shirley Temple’s birthday parties. Then he started a theater at a young age, worked in television from 1951-2014, appeared in more than eighty movies, had a successful voiceover career, raised four great kids and enjoyed a long-lasting marriage. What a legacy to leave behind.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the earliest sitcoms, December Bride, which aired on CBS from 1954-59. It began life as a radio show in 1952.
The show was created by Parke Levy who wrote the episodes as well and claimed to base Lily on his own mother-in-law. He owned 50% of the program; Desilu, producer, owned 25%; and CBS owned 25%. Harry Morgan said he liked Desi Arnaz very much. They cast rarely saw Lucy and saw Desi frequently but not in a negative way; he just might show up to see how things were going. (As an aside, I remember an interview with Bob Schiller, who wrote for this show along with many others, loved the name of “Parke Levy” and said it sounded like a Jewish housing development in New York.) Levy also wrote the film scripts for My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West.
One fun fact is that both Fred de Cordova and William Asher were directors for this sitcom. Both would go on to long careers; de Cordova would produce The Tonight Show and Burns and Allen, direct My Three Sons, and both produce and direct for The Jack Benny Show. Asher would go on to direct I Love Lucy and Alice and both produce and direct most of the Bewitched episodes.
Spring Byington starred as Lily Ruskin, a lively widow who was looking for the right man.
She lives with her daughter Ruth Henshaw (Frances Rafferty) and son-in-law Matt (Dean Miller) who help her in the search, as does her best friend, Hilda Crocker (Verna Felton).
Lily stays busy writing an advice column for the LA Gazette, “Tips for Housewives.”
Pete Porter (Harry Morgan) is her next-door neighbor who also shows up often. (Next week we will learn about his spin-off from this show, Pete ‘n Gladys.) Pete enjoyed watching Matt and Lily’s interactions which he viewed as positive, unlike his relationship with his mother-in-law which he viewed negatively.
A lot of guest stars showed up including Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz, Edgar Bergen, Madge Blake, Barbara Eden, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Kulp, Fred MacMurray, Howard McNear, Isabel Randolph, and Mickey Rooney
The scripts seemed about what you would expect for this era. In one of the funniest shows, Lily fails to deliver plans for Matt and as a result, Desi Arnaz’s family room collapses. In another one, Lily arranges for Pete to take riding lessons because his fear of horses is standing in the way of him earning a huge commission selling insurance to a wealthy ranch owner.
The gold standard for this decade seems to be Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s show and the writing doesn’t measure up to that but seems like a fun show to watch.
Maxwell House Coffee was their sponsor for the entire run of the show.
The show was on Monday nights after I Love Lucy and had top-ten ratings for the first four years. For season five, the network moved it to Thursdays, where it was up against Zorro and The Ed Wynn Show. Ratings declined significantly, and it was cancelled. Fans have noted that the last season’s scripts were not as well written and the show had probably run its course.
Harry Morgan discussed the show for the Academy of Television interviews. He said it was a nice show to work on; he described it as “fluffy and light” and “typical for the time.” He said he enjoyed doing the show, all the cast was wonderful, especially Spring who was an amazing actress, and he became good friends with Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty. He said that it was a well-done show and he had a lot of fun during those five years.
I watched the episode about Desi’s family room caving in. Morgan’s description was pretty accurate. The show might not present deep philosophical moments, but it was well written. One of the bright spots was Desi’s butler played by Richard Deacon. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a few hours than watching several of these classic television episodes.
After learning a bit about the career of Ann Sothern last week, today we take a look at two of her shows: Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show. Although they were two different shows, the second almost seemed like a continuation of the first. To make things even more complicated, when the shows went into syndication, Private Secretary was renamed Susie and all the episodes of Susie would air, followed by The Ann Sothern Show and then back to Susie.
As we learned last week, Ann suffered from hepatitis for three years. With her medical bills mounting and less film work coming in, she needed to make a living, so she turned to television to revive her career.
After appearing in series of ten Maisie films earlier in her career, Ann had a solid fan base. Ann was a smart business woman and she had a 42% ownership in her new show, Private Secretary. The show debuted in 1953.
Ann portrays Susie MacNamara, a former actress and WAC WWII veteran; she is the secretary to Peter Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. Susie often complicates life for her boss, although she means well.
One of her best friends was Violet (Ann Tyrell), their receptionist. Cagey Calhoun (Jesse White) is always trying to cause trouble for Peter as a rival talent agent.
While the scripts weren’t ground-breaking, they were well written and witty. Some shows reference one of Mr. Sands’ clients, actress Harriet Lake, which was Ann’s real name.
The show was noted for its state-of-the-art set decoration featuring IBM typewriters and Western Electric phone systems, as well as stylish furnishings.
The show was on Sunday nights on CBS and alternated weeks with highly rated Jack Benny Show. I have never seen this with any other show but Lucky Strikes, the show’s sponsor also financed The Jack Benny Show on CBS and Your Hit Parade on NBC. So, when Your Hit Parade was on hiatus for summer, Private Secretary’s reruns were shown on that network and then new shows would begin in the fall back on CBS.
The show continued to have great ratings but in 1957, even though the show was renewed for the next year, Ann got into an argument with producer Jack Chertok and she left the series which ended. I could never find definitively why they argued, but it had to do with the show’s profits.
Sothern was nominated for Best Actress Emmy for 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing to Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, and Nanette Fabray.
Instead of a sixth year of Private Secretary on CBS, The Ann Sothern Show debuted in 1958 as a weekly show. Chertok kept the rights to the title, hoping to get another actress to fill the MacNamara role. This show was created by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. Desi Arnaz would produce the show which worked out as Ann and Lucille Ball were very close friends. They appeared on each other’s shows.
In The Ann Sothern Show, Ann now plays Katy O’Connor, the assistant manager of an upscale New York hotel, The Bartley House. Her secretary is Olive Smith (Ann Tyrrell), the front desk clerk is Paul Martine (Jacques Scott), and the bell boy is Johnny Wallace (Jack Mullaney). Later Ken Berry replaced Mullaney as Woody Hamilton.
Many of the cast members from the former show appear on the new series. Although Katy has a boss she answers to, she has a lot of authority running the hotel. Katy’s first boss is Jason Macauley (Ernest Truex), a man who is dominated by his nagging wife Florence (Reta Shaw). When ratings were not great, Truex was replaced by Don Porter as James Devery. As in Private Secretary, there are some romantic currents between Katy and James. Olive’s boyfriend, a dentist, Dr. Gray, is played by Louis Nye. In season two, Jesse White showed up as Oscar Pudney an unethical newsstand owner near the hotel.
The storylines often revolved around the personal life of the staff and stories about guests staying at the hotel. The concept provided the opportunity to attract a variety of guest stars during its run. In addition to Lucille Ball, actors who appeared on the show included Jack Albertson, Frances Bavier, Constance Bennett, Eva Gabor, Joel Grey, Van Johnson, Jayne Meadows, Howard McNear, Janis Page, Cesar Romero, and Connie Stevens.
Once again Ann was nominated for an Emmy is 1959 but lost to Jane Wyatt for Father Knows Best.
Post Cereals and General Foods were sponsors for this show, and the cast would often appear in commercials at the end of the show. Ann would then sign off with “Well, goodnight everybody. Stay happy!”
For the second year, the show’s ratings were decent but not great. The show was moved to Thursday nights up against The Untouchables, a top ten show. The ratings declined, so it was cancelled.
The final episode ended in a cliffhanger. Mr. Devery finally realizes that he is in love with Katy and proposes to her. They kiss but the show ends before Katy can answer yes or no.
I remember watching the shows in syndication and I thought they were good. Ann Sothern appeared to be a likable person and a hard-working actress. Both shows were often in the top 25% of the ratings. With all the reboots that have been done, I have never heard of either of these shows as possibilities and they seem to be good options for a contemporary show.
If you want to check out the shows, Private Secretary has several DVD options. The only place I could find The Ann Sothern Show was on etsy, and the site specifically mentions that it is “not a retail set nor is this a commercial studio release.” Maybe with all the classic television networks debuting, we will see Private Secretary back on the air again soon.
Ann Sothern was born Harriette Arlene Lake, a natural redhead, in 1909 in North Dakota. An interesting note, her paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, invented the modern submarine and her sister Marion was secretary to Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame. She and her two sisters were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the age of five, she began taking piano lessons and studied at the McPhail School of Music where her mother was a piano teacher. By 11, she was an accomplished pianist, and she was singing solos in her church choir. At 14 she began taking voice lessons. During her time at the Minneapolis Central High School, she appeared in a variety of productions as actor or director.
After her graduation, her mother moved to Los Angeles to become a vocal coach for Warner Brothers. Ann moved to Seattle with her father (her parents had divorced earlier) to attend the University of Washington, but she dropped out after her first year. Ann turned back to her singing talent and sang with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.
While visiting with her mother, she did a screen test for MGM and was signed to a six-month contract. She had a variety of small bit parts but never received that break-out role. After meeting Florenz Ziegfeld at a party, he offered her a role in New York. When MGM chose not to pick up her option, she moved East to work for Ziegfeld. In 1930, she received her Broadway stage debut.
In 1934, Columbia signed her to a contract. At this time, she changed her name to Ann Sothern and her hair color to blonde; “Ann” was for her mother and “Sothern” for Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern. She was cast in a bunch of B movies, but, unfortunately, in 1936 her contract was not renewed.
A contract that was made that year was her marriage with Roger Pryor. They divorced in 1942. A week later, she married Robert Sterling with whom she had a daughter; they divorced in 1949.
At that time, she signed with RKO and again could just not find that perfect role, so she made the full circle, returning to MGM. MGM cast her in her first big-screen feature in 1939 as Maisie Ravier, which led to a series of Maisie films. The film was based on the book Dark Dame by Wilson Collison published in 1935.The property had been bought for Jean Harlow, but she passed away in 1937. In all, there were ten Maisie films. The popularity of the series led to a radio program, “The Adventures of Maisie,” which starred Sothern from 1945-47.
In 1949, Sothern was diagnosed with hepatitis. She contracted it after getting in serum injection during an English stage production. When she became ill, MGM let her go. Sothern suffered with the disease for three years. She was receiving a few supporting roles such as in The Blue Gardenia, but her medical bills were mounting, so she turned to television.
Sothern was offered her own sitcom in 1953. Titled Private Secretary, the show would last five years on CBS before transitioning to The Ann Sothern Show in 1958.
In Private Secretary, she appeared as Susie MacNamara, a secretary working for Peter Sands (Don Porter), a New York City talent agent. The series alternated weeks with The Jack Benny Show. Private Secretary had great ratings, placing in the top ten consistently. Sothern was nominated for an Emmy four years. Sothern had a 42% interest in the show and after the fourth year, she and Jack Chertok, producer, had a major disagreement and she left the show.
The next year she showed up in The Ann Sothern Show, a very similar sitcom. Now Ann was Katy O’Connor an assistant manager at the Bartley House Hotel. Originally her boss was played by Ernest Truex but after dismal ratings, Don Porter was brought back as James Devery, hotel owner. The show’s ratings picked up significantly and were good until CBS moved the show to Thursday nights against The Untouchables. The show was cancelled in 1961.
Sothern returned to film features and made several appearances on Lucille Ball’s the Lucy Show as Countess Framboise. Ball was one of her best friends and called Sothern “the best comedian in the business, bar none.”
Ann was a good business woman. She opened the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley, Idaho, selling fabrics, patterns, and sewing machines in the 1950s. She also bought a cattle ranch in Idaho, A Bar S Cattle Co. In addition, she owned the production companies that produced Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show.
Ann also continued with her early musical abilities. In the mid-fifties, she starred in a nightclub act in Las Vegas and Chicago. In 1958, she released an album, “Sothern Exposure.”
In 1965, Sothern made a bad career move by signing on to star in the sitcom My Mother the Car with Jerry Van Dyke. Van Dyke played a lawyer who restored a 1928 antique car only to learn that it spoke to him through the radio as his mother. The show somehow lasted one season and has been named one of the worst sitcoms ever.
For the next two decades, Ann worked in both film and television but never had an iconic role. One of the issues she had to deal with during this time was a back injury. During a stock production in Florida, a fake tree fell on her back. She was put in traction and had to wear a back brace. She also developed a case of depression. For the rest of her life, she would suffer from numbness in her feet and need a cane to walk.
In 1987, Sothern had her final role in the film The Whales of August starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role.
Retiring to Ketchum, Idaho, Ann enjoyed the rest of her life in retirement and passed away from heart failure in 2001.
Her long career spanned six decades and like so many early stars, she found work on stage, on radio, in film, and on television. Ann definitely paid her dues, spending more than a decade in Hollywood. If her health had not thrown her a curve, she might have become one of the top stars. What impressed me most was that after more than sixty years in the entertainment industry, she was able to retire to a place she loved and enjoy almost twenty years as part of a community with her favorite activities such as embroidery and outdoor fun.
Mister Peepers was one of the first popular sitcoms. It aired from July of 1952 until June of 1955. The show starred Wally Cox as Robinson J. Peepers. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher. A great cast surrounded him including history teacher Harvey Weskit (Tony Randall), Harvey’s wife Marge (Georgann Johnson), county nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit), English teacher Mrs. Gurney (Marion Lorne), and athletic coach Frank Whip (Jack Warden). (In the pilot, the coach was played by Walter Matthau.) Peepers developed a relationship with nurse Nancy, and her parents (Ernest Truex and Sylvia Field) also became part of the cast.
The show featured some slapstick as well but it was not the primary form of humor. In one episode, the uncoordinated Mr. Peepers was playing basketball in the gym alone and somehow got stuck in the basket. In order to fulfill the evening obligations that he promised, he brings Mrs. Gurney’s flower club into the gym so he can lecture to them about potting soil while playing chess with a rival school’s champion as promised to Mr. Gurney.
Mr. Peepers is kind. In one episode, after injuring his finger, absent-minded Mrs. Gurney tries to help by bandaging it. In addition to using half a roll of tape, Robinson informs Nancy that she bandaged the wrong finger.
Mister Peepers is a likable guy. He has some eccentric characteristics which make us like him even more. For example, he has an elaborate ritual to get his locker to open; on bring your pet to school day, he has to hide a cow; and sometimes he does things we all want to. On one episode, he comes upon a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and just like we would want to do, he plays it not realizing his girlfriend is watching him. However, Robinson has a bit of rebellion and sarcasm that keeps him from being too much of a goody-two-shoes.
Tony Randall’s character Harvey was supposed to be a small role, but the producers liked him so much he became a regular. He is best friends with Robinson but they couldn’t be more different. Harvey is a lady’s man. However, Mr. Peepers only has eyes for Nancy even though it takes her a while to realize he is interested in her. The couple ties the not in 1954, producing a huge ratings boost.
In real life, Cox was experiencing the same situation when he married Marilyn Gennaro about the same time. When Benoit became pregnant in real life, she was also pregnant on the show.
When the Peepers found out they were having a baby, American Character Dolls Co wanted to make a “Peepers Baby Doll” in 1955. Polling indicated that viewers were hoping for a girl, so it went into production. Mister Peepers was cancelled before the doll debuted, but the company sold it anyway, although they did change the name.
The show was aired live with an audience of 2500 at the New Century Theatre in New York. Preserved on 16mm kinescopes, there are currently 102 of the original 127 episodes in existence. The kinescopes are being preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and a DVD set has been produced.
The Ford Motor Company needed a summer replacement on Thursday nights so Mister Peepers debuted then. NBC decided it was too much pressure to do a live show, so it was cancelled. Fans were irate. After 2000 people called to complain and 15000 letters were received, the network had second thoughts, but their schedule was full.
However, that fall, an opening occurred when Doc Corkle was cancelled after only three episodes. How bad does a show have to be to get axed after three episodes in 1952? I don’t know, but the summary of the show is that “Doc is a dentist plagued with money problems, teenage daughter problems, and a screwball stepsister Melinda.”
It says a lot about the quality of Mister Peepers that it was rated so highly and watched by so many fans because it was up against Private Secretary with Ann Sothern and The Jack Benny Show on Sunday nights. Tough competition.
Critics liked the show and it was nominated for best situation comedy for the Emmys in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, and Marion Lorne were all nominated as well. Each of the years the show was nominated it went up against Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen, and I Love Lucy which won in 1953 and 1954; Make Room for Daddy won in 1955. NBC made Wally Cox postcards which they handed out to tourists on the lot.
Wally Cox was an interesting guy. He was a brilliant man who studied acting with Stella Adler. His roommate was Marlon Brando whom he had been best friends with since grade school. His mother and grandmother were writers, and his dad was in advertising. Before he was able to earn a living in acting, he taught the lindy hop for $1.50 a lesson and made cuff links and tie clasps. While doing part-time jobs, he began doing standup at clubs like The Blue Angel and Village Vanguard.
Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember him only for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and as the voice of Underdog the cartoon hero. He was also famous for a Jockey Shorts commercial when he quipped, “Outside I might look like Wally Cox but inside I feel like Tyrone Power.” He passed away much too early, dying from a heart attack at 48.
Although Wally Cox was not Mister Peepers, their humor was similar. Cox wasn’t brash but he experienced life with a quiet subtle manner and was a genuinely funny guy. In discussing his time on the show, Cox said, “Mr. Peepers put me on the map and I love him.” I’m sure like many actors who were stereotyped early in their career, it was a bit of a love/hate relationship. I’m sure you will love him too if you are able to watch some of the episodes. Retro TV aired them in the past, but I don’t see the show on its current schedule. I also found the DVDs on amazon.com. Happy viewing!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.
Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr. Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”
When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”
In 1948 he
married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but
divorced in 1961.
gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.
Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”
His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.
He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64. Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.
During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.
In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.
Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.
Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.
Olan Soule’s timeline
was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and
he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors
included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.
In 1929 he
married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they
had two children.
For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”
certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio
episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.
The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.
He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.
He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.
He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.
In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.
Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.
Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.
continue our series, Just A Couple of Characters, about character actors we
recognize but might not know much about. Hope Summers and Madge Blake are two
actresses you will recognize if you watched sitcoms in the 1960s or 1970s.
Born Sarah Hope Summers in 1902 in Mattoon, Illinois, Hope Summers often played the friendly, but nosy, neighbor. She’s best recognized as Clara from The Andy Griffith Show.
became interested in theater early in her life. She attended Northwestern,
majoring in speech. After graduation she stayed at the University and taught
speech and diction. She then moved to Peoria and headed the Speech Department
at Bradley University. She joined a few community theaters, putting on
one-woman shows. She also acted in a few dramatic radio shows.
She married Claude Witherell in 1927, and they were married until his death in 1967. The couple had two children.
In 1950, she transitioned to television. She appeared in an early comedy series, Hawkins Falls: A Television Novel. Like Edward Andrews, she was often cast in roles older than her actual age. She became a popular actress quickly. She continued to appear in a variety of shows throughout the 1950s including Bachelor Father, Private Secretary, Wagon Train, Dennis the Menace, and the Loretta Young Show.
1958-1960, she would appear in The
Rifleman as Hattie Denton.
In 1961, she received the role she would become most famous for, Clara, Bee’s best friend on The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy Griffith left the show in 1968, Hope continued with Mayberry RFD in her role of Clara for five episodes. Clara was a lonely spinster who lived next door to Andy and his family. She and Bee had fun sharing bits of gossip and talking about current events. Clara had a good heart and though she and Bee could get upset with each other, they truly cared about each other.
While playing the role of Clara, she continued to guest in series throughout the 1960s. She appeared on many of the hit shows of that time such as Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Phyllis Diller Show, Marcus Welby, That Girl, and Bewitched.
During the 1970s, Summers kept her career going strong, appearing in Hawaii Five-0, M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie, and Welcome Back Kotter.
Summers began her acting career during the second half of her life, she was
also featured in several well-known movies. In 1960, she was in Inherit the Wind, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, among others.
Summers also was famous as the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in commercials.
In 1978 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and quit acting. She passed away from the disease in 1979.
Summers was part of the cast of The Andy
Griffith Show, Madge Blake was busy portraying Aunt Harriet on Batman.
Born Madge Cummings in 1899 in Kansas, she, like Hope Summers, became interested in acting at a young age. Her father was a Methodist minister and he refused to allow her to give it a try. Oddly enough, Madge’s maternal uncle was Milburn Stone, Doc on Gunsmoke.
Although they later divorced, Madge married James Blake and they had one child. She had a fascinating career. Both she and James worked for the government during the war. They had top secret clearance for their project working on the construction of the detonator for the atomic bomb in Utah. They also performed tests on equipment used in the Manhattan Project.
Also, like Summers, Blake turned to acting at a later age. When she was 50, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. She only had twenty years in the business, yet she managed to achieve an impressive 124 acting credits.
Blake would appear in 47 films in smaller, but impressive, roles. Some of her movies included An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, The TenderTrap, Bells Are Ringing, Ain’t Misbehaving, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Beginning her television career in 1954, she racked up an impressive amount of guest star roles and several recurring roles. She played Tillie, the president of the Jack Benny fan club on The Jack Benny Show. She played Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver. An interesting aside is that she was asked to play Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show where she would have worked with Hope Summers. Because she was locked into the role of Mrs. Mondello, she declined. She took the role of Mrs. Barnes, Joey’s mother, on The Joey Bishop Show. On the Real McCoys, she played Flora MacMichael, Grandpa McCoy’s love interest; Nurse Phipps on Dr. Kildare; and the role she became best known for, Aunt Harriet on Batman.
The network was worried about Batman and Robin living alone together on Batman, so the role of Aunt Harriet was added. The story line was that she raised Bruce Wayne in the family mansion. Their interaction with Aunt Harriet was also a reason for the dynamic duo to appear in their non-hero roles more often.
It would seem that coming into acting later in life and then appearing in so many movies and recurring television appearances would have kept her quite busy. But in addition to these appearances, she was cast in many of the most popular shows during her twenty years on television. During that time, you can find her on dramas like Public Defender, Lassie, The Restless Gun, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Of course, she was meant to play comedy and she appeared on an incredible number of sitcoms. Just to name a few, there of them: George Burns and GracieAllen Show, I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Doris Day Show. Pretty amazing.
I read over and over that one of her best performances was in the pilot for Dennis the Menace where she plays Dennis’s babysitter. I have not been able to watch that show, but I will definitely check that out.
In 1969, Blake passed away from a heart attack after she broke her leg. She was only 70, or we might have had a much longer list of television series for her.
Hope Summers and Madge Blake had a lot in common. They both became interested in acting at an early age, they both had major careers before acting, they both began acting in the second half of their life, they both played neighborly types–Summers, nosier, and Blake, more ditzy. They also both had respectable film careers paralleling their television ones. Their television roles may have been smaller, but they were memorable, they are definitely two characters worth watching.