Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.

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 Magic School Bus: Encouraging Us To “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy”

Knowing the theme for this blog series is Valerie, if I asked you to think of “Valeries” from television history, it might take you a while to come up with our subject for today. We are learning about Valerie Frizzle, an eccentric teacher who takes her class on educational field trips on her magical school bus on The Magic School Bus.

Based on the books that are written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, the original television show ran from 1994-1997, producing 52 episodes. It was created by Joanna Cole, Bruce Degen, and Laskas Martin. (A reboot The Magic School Bus Rides Again began recently.)

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The premise of the show is that a class taught by Valerie Frizzle at Walkerville Elementary take field trips to learn about science. Mr. Ruhle is the principal, and he is not aware that the bus is anything other than a simple school bus. However, the “Friz’s” bus can change shape and form to explore anything: far into outer space, deep in the ocean, back to the days of dinosaurs, and even into the human body. The bus can transform itself into a plane, a jeep, or other form of transport. It can become a frog or another type of animal to get into a specific ecosystem.

The Friz has a pet lizard named Liz who accompanies the class on its trips. Liz eats insects, but when the bus shrinks, she is very frightened by bugs.

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Apparently Walkerville is in a small community, because there are only eight children in her third-grade class: Arnold, Carlos, Dorothy Ann, Keesha, Phoebe, Ralphie, Tim, and Wanda.

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The Bus

The bus itself is a 1970s Ward International R-183 manufactured by Ward International Trucks, Inc. The bus is painted the typical school bus yellow. The magic part comes in with the devices that are installed in the bus. There is the shrinker scope that can shrink and re-size the bus when Ms. Frizzle asks it to. There is also a portashrinker that doesn’t work if the bus is wet and if someone tries to use it then, the Dew Dinger alerts them. There is also a mesmerglober which can change the shape of the bus. A magic battery runs on solar power.

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The bus seems pretty indestructible. In one episode it floated around in lava. The bus has eyes and a mouth and often shows emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.

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The Friz

Valerie Felicity Frizzle is a quite a character. She has fiery red hair that is usually seen in a bun. Static electricity makes her hair frizzy. So, what do we know about Ms. Frizzle? She was a Shakespearian actress at one point in her life. She also had a band called The Frizzlettes and toured with rock star Molly Cule. She then went back to school for education. She learned about “busanautics” from a mechanic she knows, R.U. Humerus.

Voiced by the funny Lily Tomlin, the Friz is always optimistic. She cares about her students and is passionate about science. She lives in a mansion that has a bridge on the property as well as a fountain with a statue of Liz. You can often spot the bus parked in her driveway. She keeps a framed photo of Mr. Seedplot, suggesting that they may be romantically involved. She loves to tell jokes. She is very protective of her students who love and respect her.

Miss Frizzle has an interesting wardrobe and most of her clothing is science themed.

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Some of her taglines are “To the bus!”; “Okay, bus, do your stuff!”; and “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

During the four years the show was on the air, we got to know her students very well.

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Arnold

Arnold was not a fan of field trips. Like The Friz, he is a redhead. Arnold wears glasses. He was the shyest kid in the class, but he was brave. He cares about the environment and is interested in rocks. His aunt, Arizona Joan, is a famous archaeologist. He also has an uncle who is a firefighter in a national park.

Arnold’s favorite color is orange and he is Jewish. Pollen and pepper both make him sneeze. He also loves cold weather because that means he can drink hot chocolate.

His most famous sayings are “I knew I should have stayed home today”; “We’re doomed” and “Carlos!”

In one of his interviews, illustrator Bruce Degen mentions that Arnold was based on his son.

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Carlos

Carlos, a brunette, is the class clown. He tells a lot of jokes, some not so good which always gets the reactions, “Carlos!” from his classmates, especially Arnold. Carlos and Dorothy Ann often butt heads about learning because he is a hands-on learner while she is not.

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Dorothy Ann

Dorothy Ann likes to learn by reading. Her favorite science area is astronomy and she has a telescope at home. She tends to argue with many of her friends and one of her favorite sentences starts, “According to my research . . .”

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Keesha

Keesha can be a bit sarcastic. While Arnold and Dorothy Ann have different perspectives, Keesha and Ralphie are opposites. Keesha is a realist. Like Ms. Frizzle, she keeps her curly hair in a bun most of the time. Unlike most girls her age, she likes garter snakes.

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Phoebe

Phoebe keeps her brown hair in a flip with a yellow hairband and bangs. She is kind-hearted, sweet, very bright, and patient. She’s left-handed and she cares a lot about animals. She often refers to her previous class, saying “At my old school . . .” When her father visits the school one day, he also refers to her old school.

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Ralphie

Ralphie is a heavyset boy who often wears a baseball cap. He loves baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey and is athletic. He daydreams a lot, learning through imagination. He is a fun-loving kid. He has a dog named Noodles. We learn he loves comic books and superheroes but dislikes anchovies and roller coasters. He worries about creatures like vampires which probably comes from overusing his imagination. His mother is a doctor and they seem to have a lot of fun together.

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Tim

Tim is quiet and artistic; we often see him off drawing somewhere. Sometimes he tells jokes with Carlos. An interesting family fact is that his grandfather is a bee keeper and he delivers honey every winter.

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Wanda

Wanda is a tomboy. She is the smallest member but may be the toughest. She dreams of being a pilot and loves it when the bus can fly. She hates cold weather. Her mother visits class now and then; she is a science journalist. It’s often mentioned that her mother keeps reptiles around the house; one time an alligator is found in the bathtub and a gila monster in the sandbox. Wanda is a gaming expert; she also likes to play the guitar.

We often hear her say, “What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?”

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Famous Guest Stars

For an animation show, this series featured an incredible number of famous guest stars. Tyne Daly was Ralph’s mother; Elliott Gould was Arnold’s father; Swoosie Kurtz was Dorothy Ann’s mom, and Eartha Kitt was Keesha’s mother. Ed Begley Jr. showed up as Logaway Larry; Carol Channing was Cornelia C. Contralto, Cindy Williams was Gerri Poveri; Dolly Parton was Katrina Murphy; Sherman Hemsley was Mr. Junkit; Rita Moreno was Dr. Carmina Skeledon; Dabney Coleman was Horace Scope; and Bebe Neuwirth was Flora Whiff. Tony Randall took the role of mechanic, R.U. Humerus while Wynonna Judd became rock star Molly Cule. Dom DeLuise was a baker; Ed Asner a general; Alex Trebek an announcer; and Tom Cruise played himself.

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Theme Song

The theme song is sung by Little Richard. The show begins with:

 (Bus honks, drives up, doors open)
 

Valerie Frizzle: Seatbelts, everyone!
 

Arnold: Please let this be a normal field trip.
 

Wanda: With the Frizz?
 

Kids except Arnold and Dorothy Ann: No way!
 

Arnold: Ohh!

Little Richard: Cruising on down main street. You’re relaxed and feeling good! (Yeah!)
 

Next thing that you know, you’re seeing…
 

Valerie Frizzle: (driving into ocean) Wa-ha-ha-hoo!
 

Little Richard: An octopus in the neighborhood?!

Surfing on a sound wave! Swinging through the stars!

Ralphie, Wanda and Carlos: Yee-ha!

Little Richard: Take a left at your intestine. Take your second right past Mars!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Navigate a nostril!

(Ralphie sneezing)

(class gasping)

Kids and Little Richard: Climb on The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Spank a plankton, too!

Wanda: Take that!

Kids: On our Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Raft a river of lava!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Such a fine thing to do!

Kids: Whoa!

Little Richard: So, strap your bones right to the seat, come on in and don’t be shy….

Come on.

Just to make your day complete,

You might get baked into a pie!

Kids and Little Richard: On The Magic School Bus!
 

(Dorothy Ann, Keesha and Ralphie run up to Bus and enter before Bus shapeshifts)
 

Little Richard: Step inside, it’s a wilder ride!
 

Come on!
 

(Bus appears under big title that reads “The Magic School Bus…”)
 

Kids and Little Richard: Ride on The Magic School Bus!
 

(Bus disappears to reveal title of episode)
 

(Bus honking)

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I did not watch The Magic School Bus a lot. It went off the air about the time my older boys would have been the age to watch it. However, we read most of the books, and my kids learned a lot from them. Along with Arthur, this is probably one of my favorite cartoons for combining fun with learning.

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.

“I’m a neurotic nut, but you’re crazy!”

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Today we learn about the story behind The Odd Couple.  I think that this show is one of the most under-appreciated shows out there. It came at a time when shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and M*A*S*H were being acclaimed for their sophisticated writing and depth of characters.  The Odd Couple achieved these same credentials. Garry Marshall learned the importance of character-driven scripts during his time writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show. Ironically, Marshall wrote 18 scripts for The Dick Van Dyke Show and Jerry Paris (Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) directed 18 episodes for The Odd Couple.

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In March of 1965, the play debuted. Written by Neil Simon, The Odd Couple was based on the real-life experiences of his brother Danny. The play ran for 966 performances and was nominated for a Tony that year. In 1968, a movie was made starring Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison and Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger. Simon signed away his television rights. When Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson developed the series, it was listed as “Neil Simon’s Odd Couple. Simon objected to his name being associated with the show, because he said he did not know what the writing would be like. His name was removed, but he did come to appreciate the series, and he had a cameo role in the episode “Two on the Aisle” in 1974.

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The show was on the air for five years from 1970-1975, producing 114 episodes. Tony Randall was hired first.  Both Dean Martin and Art Carney were considered for the part of Felix. Randall was pushing for Mickey Rooney to get the role of Oscar.  Martin Balsam was also under consideration. Garry Marshall fought hard for Jack Klugman, and eventually Klugman received the part. Both Randall and Klugman had starred in different versions of the play.

The show was on the verge of cancellation every year, but the summer ratings were always so high that the show continued to be renewed. Jack Klugman had high hopes for the syndication of the show, and he convinced Tony Randall to give up part of his salary for syndication rights. Klugman was right; in the 1980s, the show was on the air on several channels. Although the show never cracked the top 30, critics liked the show and it was nominated for an Emmy three times for Outstanding Comedy Series. Both Klugman and Randall were nominated for Emmys every year the show was on the air for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Performance; Klugman won in 1971 and 1973 while Randall took home the award in 1975.

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This was the memorable introduction to the show each week:

“On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. (A door slams shut, only to reopen and we see someone angrily hand Felix his saucepan) That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that someday, he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison’s wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

Bill Woodson narrated the opening. The actions of the two leads during the credits changed a bit from year to year but centered around Oscar being a slob and Felix being a neat freak.

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There were several variations about how Felix and Oscar met.  As you can see in the opening, they were mentioned as being childhood friends. However, in the first season, one of the episodes recalled a murder trial where Felix and Oscar were jurors, claiming they met then.  Later several episodes mentioned them meeting in the Army. In Season 3, the word “childhood” was removed from the opening segment.

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During the first season, the show was filmed in the same apartment as the movie version. It was done with one camera and a laugh track.  For the second and subsequent years, three cameras were used, and the laugh track was replaced by a live audience.

Oscar and Felix lived at 1049 Park Avenue, an existing address in New York. The actual building was used for the opening credits and exterior shots. Almost all the exterior shots feature two cars: a 1966 Ford 4-door station wagon and a red VW Beatle. Fans still visit the building, and occasionally mail is delivered for Oscar or Felix.

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Many of the show’s details were adapted from real life. Brett Somers played Oscar’s ex-wife and just happened to be his ex-wife in real life. Oscar and Klugman both followed horse racing. Oscar wrote for the New York Herald.  The Herald did exist from 1835-1924 when it merged with the Tribune.

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Felix’s kids were named Edna and Leonard. Tony Randall’s middle name was Leonard, and his sister’s name was Edna. Felix moved out of the house November 13, Garry Marshall’s birthday. Randall and Felix both had an appreciation for opera and classical music.

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Oscar was a hot dog and beer guy while Felix was a filet mignon and red wine person.

ABC was always worried about the issue of homosexuality. As a prank, Klugman and Randall would occasionally provide improvised dialogue to send to the network just to get them worked up.

As mentioned earlier, Brett Somers played Oscar’s ex-wife. Randall’s ex-wife Gloria was played by Janis Hansen. Pamela Ferdin had the role of Edna, while the role of Leonard was played by two different actors who would both go on to become teen idols: Willy Aames and Leif Garrett.

Al Molinaro played Murray the cop, the guys’ friend and one of the regular poker players. Penny Marshall played Oscar’s secretary Myrna Turner. Elinor Donahue played Miriam Welby who was Felix’s girlfriend until the last season. The last episode of the series reunites Felix and Gloria who remarry.

There were many celebrity guest stars on the show for the five-year run, and many of them played themselves. Some of the famous faces to appear on the show include Martina Arroyo, Roone Arledge, Dick Clark, Roy Clark, Howard Cosell, Richard Dawson, Richard Fredricks, Monty Hall, Hugh Hefner, Billy Jean King, Allen Ludden, Jaye P. Morgan, Bobby Riggs, Bubba Smith, Betty White, Paul Williams, and Wolfman Jack. Garry Marshall shows up four different times on the show–as a drummer, as Werner Turner, and as Man 1 and Man 2.

Two of the best-loved episodes were “Password” and “Fat Farm.”

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In “Password,” Oscar Madison  is invited to be a celebrity guest on Password after he runs into the show’s host, Allen Ludden, and his wife, Betty White, at a restaurant. Because  Felix loves Password, he begs Oscar to accept the invitation, and to bring Felix along as his partner. During the taping, Felix overthinks every clue. When Oscar says “meat,” Felix says “Lincoln” (because “Lincoln loved mayonnaise”). When the password is “bird,” Felix gives Oscar the clue “Aristophanes” (because Aristophanes wrote The Birds). “If Charlie Chan had these clues, he’d be running a laundry,” Oscar grumbles. But the game isn’t a total disaster. When Oscar gets the password “ridiculous,” he gives Felix the clue “Aristophanes” right back, and Felix responds correctly. The friends lose the game but not their friendship.

In “Fat Farm,” proving he’s in top shape, Felix stands on his head and jumps onto a desk (earning Randall applause from the audience), while Oscar can barely make it through a couple of push-ups. Oscar rationalizes why he should not go on Felix’s annual two-week visit to a health camp–“I like my blubber! It keeps me warm, it keeps me company, it keeps my pants up!.” Felix wears him down, so Oscar goes along. It makes him crazy that the camp serves imaginary desserts and bans food from the bedrooms. Soon Oscar discovers a delicatessen just down the road and undertakes a smuggling operation.

Jack Klugman and Tony Randall developed a very close and life-lasting friendship during the years they appeared together as Oscar and Felix. After the show was cancelled, they continued to see each other often. They performed in regional productions of The Odd Couple from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s. They appeared in commercials as Felix and Oscar for Yoplait yogurt, Yahtzee, and Eagle snacks. They even recorded an album “The Odd Couple Sings” for London Records.

On March 23, 2001, Larry King Live featured Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. This clip from the show gives us a good idea of what their friendship meant to them.

KING: Was it as much fun doing it, Tony, as it appeared there?

RANDALL: Yes, yeah. Especially working with Jack. It sounds as if I’m saying the right thing, but it’s true. But acting has always been fun for me. I’d rather act than do almost anything else.

KING: Did you — Jack, was this a natural simpatico between the two of you? It just happened?

KLUGMAN: Oh yeah, it happened so beautifully. Like, we had maybe five pages that would remain — from Monday when we read the script — five pages would remain by Friday by the time we did it.

If for instance, he had to teach me manners, it would be Tony teaches Jack manners, and it would be four blank pages, and then we’d improvise. And he’s the best improviser in the world. He taught me how to improvise. People when they improvise, they talk, talk, trying to fill time. He would provoke — I had to teach him football, right? He knows it, he watches sports all the time. But instead of — I said, all right, now get down, so he came next to me. So, I said we’re not the Rockettes, come over here. And then he put his face right here, and I said, I don’t want to dance with you. So, he would provoke you into saying something funny. That’s true improvisation. It was wonderful. I had a great time. I learned a lot.

KING: Was it natural for you too, you and him?

RANDALL: It just clicked.

KING: It just clicked?

RANDALL: That doesn’t always happen.

KING: No.

RANDALL: It doesn’t even happen always with good actors.

KING: You could put two good actors and put them together, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work, right?

RANDALL: That’s right, that’s right.

KING: So, there has to be a natural chemistry?

RANDALL: A spark. You can’t explain, you can’t predict it.

KLUGMAN: But you also, if I may say, you both got to want the same thing, which is the best show you can put on. See, I mean, we were not interested in billing or in stardom. We wanted this to be the best show we could. And we never had any of that, I should get more, he should get more. We never, ever had that kind of argument, never. We may have discussed what’s funny to him, what’s funny to me, and we’d work it out. But it was wonderful that way. There was no jealousy.

. . .

CALLER: And I was very touched by that, and I was wondering if you could tell us how much your friendship has played a part in your life and your careers and forgive me if you’ve already talked about that.

KING: Good question. Tony?

RANDALL: Well, perhaps this is an odd thing to say. I’ve had almost no friends in my life. Very few. You count them on this many fingers, so the friendship with Jack is pretty important.

KING: Why?

RANDALL: I don’t know. I was married for 54 years. And we didn’t have children, and we were sufficient to each other. And we didn’t have friends. We were just a little world. And we were happy. And we had almost no social life. And my friendship with Jack just grew and it was about the only friendship I had.

KING: Do you agree The Odd Couple is about friendship?

RANDALL: It’s about male bonding, absolutely. That’s what the play’s about.

KING: Jack, what kind of friend is Tony Randall to you?

KLUGMAN: He’s the best.

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Tony Randall passed away in 2004 at age 84 from pneumonia following heart surgery. Following Randall’s death, Jack Klugman authored a book with Burton Rocks titled Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship which was published in August of 2005. He wanted to pay a tribute to his friend and hoped to raise money through royalties which would enable a theater to be named in honor of Randall. Klugman talks about the Broadway that existed when they were young and how it influenced each of them. He said Randall founded the National Actors Theater with $8,000,000. He worked diligently to promote it from 1991 when it opened until his death in 2004. And he paid $35,000 a week to bring local students in to expose them to good theater. After his death, it disbanded.

I could not find a Tony Randall Theater, but I was able to locate the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund which supports “nonprofit theater companies, innovative productions, initiatives in art education, and arts-based community outreach programs.”

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In commenting on Randall’s death, Klugman said “My favorite episode of The Odd Couple was one where we were on Password. They were throwing Tony off the show, and he had a great adlib. He said, ‘Oh, boy, what a gyp!’ And that’s the way I feel now. What a gyp.”

Jack Klugman died in 2012 from prostrate cancer at the age of 90.

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It’s nice to learn that Felix and Oscar were truly the friends we thought them to be in real life. With all the articles currently being written about the lack of male friendships and how detrimental that is on men’s health, these two were good role models.

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In 2005, the American Booksellers Association posted an interview with Klugman on November 3, written by Tom Nolan. Jack was discussing some of the book events he attended and what it meant to him to talk with viewers who watched and enjoyed The Odd Couple. He received intimate feedback from strangers about why the show was important to them. He said “You know you do a show, and you do the best you can. We used to work until eleven o’clock every night on The Odd Couple, to make it good. Now it’s 30 years since it’s been off the air, and I go around, and people say: ‘I grew up with you. I sat on the couch with my mother or my father, and we laughed with you.’ And suddenly the people have faces, and names, and feelings. It’s been invigorating! You know, you don’t count on that; you don’t know that you’re really entertaining people or having an effect on people’s lives. I had a guy from Sports Illustrated who did an interview with me say he became a sportswriter because I was a sportswriter on The Odd Couple. Yeah, it’s like wow, you’re kidding. Now I’m getting this in person, and I really love it.”

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We all thank you Jack Klugman and Tony Randall for the entertainment you provided and the friendship you created!

Love and the Funny Show

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There was something magical about the Friday evening television schedule from 1971-1973.  Anyone who was born in the late 1950s or early 1960s can remember sitting down in front of the television at 7 pm (central time) for the Brady Bunch and staying put through The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.  Sitting through an entire evening of shows was almost unheard of back then, but we binge watched every Friday night. While the boys were divided between Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge, every girl of that age had was in love with Keith Partridge.  Watching an episode of The Partridge Family today makes me feel 10 again. For the next five weeks, I’m taking a look at each of the shows that made this schedule so enjoyable.

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Today we begin with Love, American Style. This show was an iconic 1970s show. Like Laugh In, the clothing, furnishings, and vocabulary do not make it timeless. But it was a lot of fun. This fast-paced anthology show featured two to four mini episodes each week, and between them were quick skits, often featuring a brass bed. Each smaller episode is titled “Love and the _______.”

A troupe of players was featured on each show for the in-between skits. These regulars included William Callaway, Buzz Cooper, Phyllis Davis, Mary Grover, James Hampton, Stuart Margolin, Lynn Marta, Barbara Minkus, and Tracy Reed. Margolin went on to a regular role in The Rockford Files; Tracy Reed was featured in McCloud and Knot’s Landing; Phyllis Davis was part of the cast of Vega$ and Magnum PI, and James Hampton will be familiar if you watched The Doris Day Show or F-Troop. Both Reed and Davis were featured on Love Boat episodes which had a similar format to Love, American Style.

The show had a memorable and catchy theme song. Written by Arnold Margolin, the first year it was performed by The Cowsills.  You will see a lot of overlap between these five Friday night shows, and music is one of those cross-overs. The Partridge Family was based on the life of The Cowsills.

During the second and subsequent years that Love, American Style was on the air, the theme song was performed by the Ron Hicklin Group. The Ron Hicklin Group could be heard in a variety of motion pictures and commercials, and they also appeared on recordings with stars such as Paul Revere and the Raiders and Cher. John and Tom Bahler, brothers who sang under The Charles Fox Singers were also part of this group. The group provided television theme song recordings including Batman, That Girl, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. They also did the singing for The Partridge Family theme and songs performed on the show as well as the Brady Bunch kids. Ron retired in the early 2000s, and Tom does a variety of things. He is also known for writing Bobby Sherman’s hit, “Julie Do You Love Me?”. John married Janet Lennon, one of the Lennon sisters who performed on The Lawrence Welk Show. He currently lives in Branson and conducts the “new” Lawrence Welk orchestra.

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The snappy melody was set to the following words:

Love, Love, Love

Love, American Style,
Truer than the Red, White and Blue.
Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

And on a star-spangled night my love,

My love come to me.
You can rest you head on my shoulder.
Out by the dawn’s early light, my love
I will defend your right to try.

Love, American Style,
That’s me and you.

Paramount Television developed the show. The executive producer of the show was Arnold Margolin, Stuart’s brother. There were 53 different directors during the four-year run. The series received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1970 and 1971; Best Music Composition in 1971, 1972, and 1973, winning in 1973; and winning the Emmy in 1970 for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

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Many people wrote for the show, but Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson received the most credits. One of the writers, Peggy Elliott, was interviewed by the Huffington Post in May of 2013, and she talked about her time writing for the show.

“But the show I loved writing the most, was Love, American Style. For every other show, I was writing for characters created out of someone else’s head. Sure, we could create the occasional guest-star role, and we had been told to make every role, no matter how small, a real person. ‘Think of the actor who’s playing that delivery boy,’ I can hear Billy Persky, the co-creator or That Girl, say: ‘This is a big break for him — it’s the biggest role he’s had so far. Give him something to work with.’

But with Love, American Style, every character was our very own; every situation came out of our heads. Each segment of the hour the show ran each week was a one-act play created entirely by us. Added to the attraction was the fact that we could say and do things that were taboo on every other TV show in the early ‘70s. Arnold Margolin, co-creator of the show with Jim Parker, told me recently that the creative side of the network wanted the show to be more daring, while the censors kept their red pencils ready. There was a full-time position on the show just to run interference.

We must have put both sides through the hoops with one episode we wrote: ‘Love and The Hand-Maiden.’ A young guy was dating a centerfold model. As their relationship developed, he discovered that she had no problem with shedding her clothes, but she always kept her hands covered — with artful poses in magazines, and with gloves in real life. He became obsessed with seeing her hands and came up with one ruse after another to get her to take off her gloves. We had a ball writing it, with one double-entendre after another.”

If you were a star of any kind in the early 1970s, you most likely were on Love, American Style.  The show produced 108 episodes, and those shows featured 1112 different actors. Some of the famous names showing up in the credits include Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Arte Johnson, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Regis Philbin, Burt Reynolds, Sonny and Cher, Flip Wilson, and Jo Anne Worley. Karen Valentine from Room 222, Ann B Davis and Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch, and both Jack Klugman and Tony Randall from The Odd Couple show up along the way.

Brad Duke wrote a biography about Harrison Ford and he said Ford had fond memories of appearing on Love, American Style. “He recalled that he had been given little time to prepare his wardrobe for the role of a philosophical hippie in the November 1969 episode, “Love and the Former Marriage.” He appeared on set with long hair and a beard thinking they were appropriate for the role. He was surprised when he was told he needed a haircut and trim than given a navy blue dress shirt and vinyl burgundy jeans with a large belt. They even had a scarf with a little ring to put around my neck. And I thought, someone has made a mistake here. So, rather than argue with the wardrobe people, I put on the clothes and went to find the producer. I walked on the set and he was pointed out.  I tapped his shoulder and when he turned around he had on the same clothes I did. He was a hippie producer I guess. At least the check went through, and I got paid.”

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The best way to get a good understanding of what the show was like is to look at a couple of the episodes.

January 23, 1970: Love and the Big Night

Starring Ann Elder, Buddy Lester, Frank Maxwell, Julie Newmar, and Tony Randall, this episode was often listed as a favorite. Randall is a married businessman who escorts his voluptuous secretary (Newmar) to her apartment after a late night at the office. Eager to get home to his wife, Randall hurriedly tries to open a stubborn jar of mayonnaise and winds up covered with mayo. Newmar cleans his suit, but while it’s drying, it’s stolen. After a series of amusing mishaps, Randall finally gets back to his own apartment and creeps into bed with his wife–only to find out she’s not there.

February 25, 1972: Love and the Television Set

It starred Harold Gould, Marion Ross, Ron Howard, and Anson Williams. Reading this list of names might give you a hint about what happened to this episode after it aired. Garry Marshall had written a pilot about a 1950s family that did not sell.  He turned it into an episode for Love, American Style. George Lucas caught the episode and was impressed with Ron Howard and offered him a role in his new movie American Graffiti about 1950s teens. The movie was so popular, that the network decided to put Marshall’s pilot in the fall line-up as Happy Days. Harold Gould’s role was given to Tom Bosley for the series. When Love, American Style went into syndication, this episode was retitled “Love and the Happy Days.”

October 22, 1970: Love and the Bashful Groom

This is the episode I recall when I think of the series. When I watched it originally, I was staying overnight at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother was shocked at the “vulgarity.” It really seems quite tame today, but back then it probably was unexpected. She would approve of Tom Bahler marrying Janet Lennon though because I watched Lawrence Welk with her and my grandfather whenever I was at their house.

In this episode, Paul Petersen, Christopher Stone, Meredith MacRae, Jeff Donnell, and Dick Wilson are featured. Harold (Petersen) and Linda (MacRae) are getting married. He learns that she grew up in a nudist colony and is not comfortable being naked for his wedding.  After a soul-searching talk with his best friend, and realizing he loves Linda enough to be uncomfortable, he decides to go through with the ceremony.  He gets to the church a bit late and walks in, only to see that everyone else is dressed in their Sunday best. His bride informs him that they always dress up for weddings. One of the congregation members says something like “Let’s not make him uncomfortable,” and they all begin to undress.  Of course, you see nothing improper, only clothes flying. This was probably not the best episode to “expose” my grandmother to as a first glimpse of the show.

The show lasted for four years and was cancelled in 1973. In 1985, a reboot was created, but it was on in the mornings and only lasted a few months.  The show was on at the same time as everyone’s favorite game show, The Price is Right. For the 1998 fall season, a pilot was created for prime time, but it was never ordered. While doing my research for this blog, I noticed that there was a Love, American Style project in production, so we may see it resurface again.  I’m not sure I would want to watch a 2019 or 2020 version of the show though. It was such a product of its time, and I fear what a current version would be like after seeing the reboot of Match Game which has been airing the past year or so.

Let’s all write to Antenna TV and Me TV to see if they will make the original 1971 television schedule happen, and we can watch these original shows again, reliving the excitement we experienced the first time around.

Next week we get to know The Odd Couple.

 

 

 

 

Elinor Donahue Through the Decades

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Elinor Donahue always displays a warmth and comes across as a genuinely nice person. Her first sitcom became her most famous role.  She played Betty in the iconic Father Knows Best. Although none of her later sitcoms reached the same popularity, she has had a long and full career.

She was born in April of 1937 in Tacoma, Washington. She began tap dancing at 16 months old. As a toddler, she did some acting and received a contract with Universal at the ripe old age of 5. From 1955-1961 she was married to Robert Smith. She was married her second husband, Harry Ackerman, from 1962-1991. Ackerman was a producer for shows including Leave It to Beaver, Gidget, and Bewitched.  She married her third husband Louis Genevrino in 1992.

Donahue appeared in 18 movies between 1942 and 1952 including Tea for Two with Doris Day and My Blue Heaven. She made the transition to television in 1952 appearing in 8 shows in the 1950s. One of the shows I remember her in although I only saw it in reruns was one of my favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was typically cast as the girl-next-door type. Her most famous role came in 1954 when she was cast in a new sitcom, Father Knows Best.

Father Knows Best – 1954-1960

This was one of the typical family shows of the 1950s. The Andersons lived in Springfield with three children: Betty, called Princess (Elinor Donahue), James Jr., or Bud (Billy Gray) and Kathy, usually called  Kitten (Lauren Chapin). The show debuted in the fall of 1954 on CBS. The show was cancelled in 1955 and the public was furious. Letters came pouring in, so it was reinstated. NBC took over the next year until 1958 when it went back to CBS.  In 1960, Robert Young decided he was done. These were warm and inviting parents, providing guidance and object lessons galore. Critics panned it later because it was not reality.  We have reality shows today, and please, give me fiction. We did learn life lessons on the show – following through on promises, working for what you want, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your mistakes.

Shortly after Father Knows Best left the airwaves, Donahue accepted the role of Elly Walker in The Andy Griffith Show.

The Andy Griffith Show – 1960-1961

Most of us are very familiar with The Andy Griffith Show and many of the characters who inhabit Mayberry:  Widower Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) live with Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) who takes care of them;  Barney (Don Knotts) is the inept deputy but also Andy’s best friend;  Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), the school teacher and Andy’s girlfriend later in the series; Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Barney’s girl; Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), town drunk but nice guy; Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who runs the gas station; and his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey). Andy had several romances early in the show.  He dated the county nurse Mary Simpson (played by several actresses), spent a limited amount of time with Daphne (Jean Carson) who had a crush on him; and in the first two seasons, he was sweet on Ellie Walker (Donahue), who ran the local drug store. Ellie cared about Andy, but she always stood up for herself and women’s rights.  Andy and Ellie never had the chemistry they were hoping for but they respected each other and like each other. Elinor raved about the cast and her opportunity to be on the show. She said Andy was in charge and expected quality but was fair and a nice man. She described Ron Howard as the best child actor she ever worked with.  She liked Frances Bavier and got along well with her.  She had a huge respect for Don Knott’s comedic ability. She is still friends with Betty Lynn.

She appeared on a variety of shows in the mid-1960s including 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Virginian, Dennis the MenaceStar Trek, and The Flying Nun. She tried her luck with one other sitcom in the 1960s.

Many Happy Returns – 1964-1965

This sitcom was also about a widower.  Walter Burnley (John McGiver) ran the Complaint Department at a LA department store. The show also featured his daughter (Donahue) and a coworker Lynn Hall (Elena Verdugo). His boss (Jerome Cowan) did not want him to take in any returns, so he had to resolve complaints without making his boss mad. Apparently Burnley couldn’t solve the complaints that came in from viewers because the show was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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Father Knows Best came out with two television movies in 1977: The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best – Home for Christmas, and Elinor was in both. While still showing up in random shows during the 1970s such as The Rookies, Police Woman, and Diff’rent Strokes, Donahue found time to appear in two 70s shows on a regular basis.

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The Odd Couple – 1972-1975

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple came to Friday nights in 1970. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), two divorced men who are complete opposites but best friends, try to live together without killing each other. The show had a great supporting cast including Donohue as Miriam Welby from 1972-1974, Felix’s girlfriend.

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Mulligan’s Stew – 1977

This show from 1977 starred Elinor Donahue as Jane Mulligan.   She and her husband Michael (Lawrence Pressman) are trying to raise three kids on his teacher’s salary when they suddenly add four orphaned nieces and nephews to their family. One of the kids was played by Suzanne Crough, Tracy from The Partridge Family, one of the few shows she was in. The series only lasted for seven episodes.

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The 1980s found Donahue still working regularly.  She was in Barnaby Jones, Mork & Mindy, One Day at a Time, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Golden Girls. One sitcom in the 1980s captured her attention about Beans Baxter.

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The New Adventures of Beans Baxter – 1987

Here is the plot for this one: Beans Baxter’s (Jonathan Ward) father who he thought was a mailman disappears one day.  Teenage Bean discovers that his dad worked for a secret government agency.  He is then drawn into becoming a spy for the government. The show features his adventures as he tries to find the enemy agents who are holding his father hostage while his mother played by Donahue is completely oblivious that anything strange is happening. Viewers also didn’t realize anything was happening because the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.

Entering her 60s, Elinor joined the cast of three sitcoms in the 1990s. She also made several movies including Pretty Woman in 1990 and The Princess Diaries 2 in 2004.

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Get a Life – 1990-1992

Shows don’t get much weirder than this one. Comedian Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson who lives with wacky parents (Donahue and Bob Elliott, Chris’s real father).  Some of the strange things that happen during the 36 episodes include eating a space alien, beheadings, and a robot paperboy. In this bizarre series, Chris actually dies in a third of the episodes. During the run of the show, he died from old age, tonsillitis, a stab wound, a gunshot wound, was strangled, got run over by a car, choked on his cereal, was crushed by a giant boulder, and actually exploded.

 

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Eek!stravaganza – 1992-1993

Donahue plays “The Mom” in this animated show about Eek, a purple cat who always finds himself in dangerous situations. The series was on the air for five seasons.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – 1993-1997

During the six years the show was on the air, Donahue reprised her role as Rebecca Quinn ten times. The show followed the ups and downs experienced by a female doctor practicing in a wild western town.

Interestingly, Donahue appeared in three different soap operas toward the end of her career: Santa Barbara, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless.  Elinor also appeared on a variety of documentaries and award shows. She was in the Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In 1998, she wrote her memoirs titled, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. The book included about 150 of her favorite recipes. Elinor’s career has been long and she appeared in many shows and movies over the years. She hasn’t appeared in a movie or television show since 2010, although she did do some theater.  In September of 2015, she appeared in one of my favorite plays, “Harvey” in North Carolina.

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Donahue’s career reminds me of many of the actors we have gotten to know in this blog including William Christopher, Betty White, Ken Berry, and Shelly Fabares.  These actors and actresses all appear to be very nice, talented people who have careers they should be proud of.  In a day when bad decisions and selfish actions are splattered across our television screens and newspapers, perhaps one of the best compliments we can give someone is that they had a long and fulfilling career and didn’t step all over other people to achieve it.

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When a rainy day shows up this summer, take a moment to watch some of Elinor’s sitcom episodes. Thank you Elinor Donahue for the entertainment and memories you gave us.

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Life Changes in the Blink of an Eye: The Career of Barbara Eden

Many baby boomers equate Barbara Eden with I Dream of Jeannie.  While she never escaped her iconic role as Jeannie, she has had a long and full career.

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Barbara Jean Morehead was born in Tucson, Arizona in August of 1931. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she then took her stepfather’s last name of Huff. Moving to California, she went to high school in San Francisco and then studied at the San Francisco City College, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Elizabeth Holloway School of Theatre. In 1951, she was crowned Miss San Francisco.

She began working in television in 1956, and her career has been going strong ever since. In 1958, she married actor Michael Ansara.  They had a son in 1965 who passed away from a drug overdose.  Eden said of his struggle, “He won a lot of battles, but he lost his personal war.”  She and Ansara divorced in 1974. From 1977-1983 she was married to Charles Donald Fegert.  In 1991, she married her current husband, Jon Eicholtz, and they live in Beverly Hills.

In addition to her screen and television career, she performed in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. She had an album produced in 1967 and performed on many variety shows.  She traveled with Bob Hope and starred in many musicals and plays.

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She received a Walk of Fame star in 1998.

In 2011, she wrote her autobiography, Jeanne Out of the Bottle.

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She has used her celebrity status to help many nonprofits, raising money for The Trail of the Painted Ponies Breast Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, the Wellness Community, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, Save the Children, and Childhelp, USA.

Her television career can be divided into three phases, each including a major series.

She began her acting career making appearances in many shows from 1956-1958 including West Point, Highway Patrol, I Love Lucy, The Millionaire, Crossroads, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Bachelor Father, December Bride, Father Knows Best, and The Lineup.

In 1957, she received her first starring role in a sitcom, 52 episodes of How to Marry a Millionaire. Based on a movie (starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable), she starred as Loco Jones, a model. Her friends were Michele Page (Merry Anders), a secretary, and Greta Lindquist (Lori Nelson), a quiz host.  The three women lived together in Manhattan, all sharing the goal of finding a wealthy husband.

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In the 1960s, she made appearances in many more well-known shows including Adventures in Paradise, The Andy Griffith Show, Target: The Corruptors, Cain’s Hundred, Saints and Sinners, Dr. Kildare, Route 66, The Virginian, Rawhide, Burke’s Law, Slattery’s People, The Rogues, and Off to See the Wizard.

In 1965, she took on her role of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie.  The show lasted five years, filming 139 episodes. Captain Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) finds a bottle when he crash lands on a deserted island in the South Pacific. When he opens it, Jeannie emerges.  He brings her home and tries to keep her a secret from NASA. His best friend Roger (Bill Daily) finds out, and he and Tony perform a lot of stunts to avoid anyone else figuring it out.  In the final year of the show, Jeannie and Tony get married, exposing her to the rest of the crew at NASA who know something is different but never figure out what it is. Personally, I like the Jeannie in the first year who is mischievous and intelligent. While the show was only on for five years, certainly not one of the longest-running shows, it defined Eden because since it debuted, it has been on television continually in reruns.

After I Dream of Jeannie, her television career continued as she appeared on NBC Special Treat, Condominium, A Brand New Life, Dallas, Team Supremo, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, George Lopez, and Army Wives.

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Based on the song by Jeannie C. Riley and a movie also starring Eden, she took on the role of Stella Johnson in Harper Valley PTA from 1981-82 with costar Fannie Flagg. The show lasted for 30 episodes. Stella is a widow who moves to Harper Valley with her 13-year-old daughter which is a town filled with hypocrites.  The other women severely criticize her for wearing miniskirts, and not acting like they thought a mother should.  Meanwhile, the board members were always trying to find ways to discredit her.  Fannie Flagg was the beauty shop owner Cassie Bowman.  The show never really caught on with the public. Maybe Stella was too drastic of a role change from Jeannie.

Along with her range of television acting jobs, Eden also was in 26 movies, including Flaming Star in 1960 with Elvis Presley, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1961, The Brass Bottle in 1964 which led to the idea for the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and Harper Valley PTA in 1978 which led to her third series.

In The Brass Bottle, Tony Randall plays Harold Ventimore, an architect who buys an antique urn that houses a djinn played by Burl Ives.  Grateful for being released, the djinn tries to help Harold to show his gratitude.  However, being unfamiliar with contemporary times, he causes a lot of trouble for Harold, especially with his girlfriend Sylvia, played by Eden.

She also starred in 28 made-for-tv movies.  My favorite was The Feminist and the Fuzz which you never see aired on television anymore.

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The Feminist and the Fuzz aired in 1971.  I remember watching this movie when it originally aired.  The story was about a scientist played by Eden and a cop played by David Hartman.  They both end up at an apartment at the same time and have lost so many apartments that they decide to share it until one of them can find somewhere else to live. She is a feminist, and he dates a playboy bunny played by Farrah Fawcett.  One night, the women’s libbers raid the bunny club, and while most of them are being arrested, Hartman carries Eden to a waiting police car and tells him to get her home.  Fawcett, watching this, realizes they have feelings for each other, even though they don’t acknowledge it themselves yet.  The movie had a great cast with Joann Worley, Herb Edelman, Julie Newmar, John McGiver, and Harry Morgan.

If her television show jobs and movie roles were not enough, Barbara appeared as herself on 177 different television variety and game shows from 1961-2016.

At 85, Eden continues her career with credit in Shimmer and Shine in 2016. She has also been to the Mayberry Conventions to meet her fans. She continued her friendship with Larry Hagman up to his death.

One might assume that Eden would want to distance herself from Jeannie and rely on her other body of work, but that is not the case.  Some actors develop a dislike for the character they are unable to shake off, but Eden’s advice to actors is:  “I would embrace the character, because it won’t do any good if you don’t. And another thing: Don’t whine or talk trash about it. I don’t think you ever demean to your public what you’ve done. You’re insulting them if you demean your work.”

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While Jeannie certainly provided Barbara Eden with a lot of fame, future work opportunities, and money (although probably not so much from the tv show directly), taking a survey of her career proves just how versatile of an actress she was.  No one-hit wonder here.  She accumulated a wealth of roles both on television and in the movies. She traveled around the country appearing in musicals and plays. She sang and danced, performing at some of the top clubs in the country.  She appreciated her fans and never demeaned Jeannie in their eyes.  She used her celebrity to raise money for great causes. She had a full career any actress could be proud of.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Love is definitely in the air; whether you think it smells rancid or fragrant depends on your current relationship status.  Remember those days when everything hinged on what type of valentine your current crush gave you at the school party?  Love seemed to be the answer to all questions.  We’re going to look at some classic (and not so classic) television shows that promoted that kind of love.  Sorry, I can’t tell you if that pain you’re feeling is cupid’s arrow as it hit you or heartburn, but I can share some information with you as we learn about shows with “Love” in the title.

Love That Bob (1955). Bob Cummings played ladies’ man and photographer Bob Collins.  His widowed sister, Rosemary Decamp, and nephew (Dwayne Hickman) also lived with him. Before she moved in with the Bradys, Ann B. Davis was Schultzy, Charmaine Schultz, Bob’s assistant, who was in love with him.  Every show opened with Bob holding a camera and saying, “Hold it! I think you’re going to like this picture.” The beautiful Joi Lansing was another model who also was in love with Bob, but he was having too much fun playing the field.  When he never accepted Joi, we knew deep down in his heart, he realized that Schultzy was the one for him. While Bob couldn’t decide on only one woman, the networks couldn’t decide on only one channel for the show either.  It was on NBC Jan-May of 1955, moved to CBS for two seasons, moved back to NBC, and then finished up the last year and a half on ABC. I guess no one could remember where the show was supposed to end up after 1959, so it was cancelled. Bob was one of the first stars to play two characters in one show. Bob played himself and his grandfather Josh Collins. A decade later, Fred MacMurray would play Uncle Ferguson in addition to Steve Douglas in My Three Sons.

Love That Jill (1957). Rival managers of modeling agencies are played by real life couple Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling who had played the married ghosts on Topper.  I guess they spooked the network because they disappeared after three months.

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Love and Marriage (1959). Now we know what Uncle Charlie really did before he moved in with My Three Sons.  He owned a music publishing company that was close to bankruptcy.  William Demerest plays a business owner who brings his daughter into the company as a partner.  She and her lawyer husband also move into his house.  She loves rock and roll; her father hates it, but it might save his company. The network shut down the agency after four months to promote family harmony.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959). This show was based on a 1953 book and it was the first television series to feature teenagers as the main characters. I guess when Dwayne Hickman lived with Bob Collins, he picked up a lot of tips for the ladies, and as high schooler Dobie, he spent most of his time trying to find a girl to go out with and some money to pay for the date. Since his family owned a small grocery store, he was on his own for finances. Once he graduated, the show had to come up with new situations, so Dobie was in college for a couple of years as well as the army for a year. Dobie would go to the Rodin’s Thinker in the park and talk to us and himself about his love life. His best friend was beatnik and bongo player Maynard G. Krebs.  Bob Denver played this role before he went on to star in Gilligan’s Island.  He had never acted before this show; he had been a grade school teacher, and his sister, who worked for the casting department, included his name in the auditions. Super smart Zelda Gilroy was in love with Dobie.  We knew he would eventually end up with her, his own Schultzy.  She always wrinkled her nose at him and before he could stop himself he always did it back. In later years when they did two reunion movies, Dobie and Zelda were in fact married.  Sheila James, who played Zelda, became a California senator.

During the first season, Dobie thought he was in love with Thalia Meninger played by Tuesday Weld.  Thalia only liked Dobie when he had money which was not often. In real life they did not get along, and she left after the first season. Another character who disappeared after the first season was his brother Davey Gillis who was played by Hickman’s real brother, Darryl. Dobie also suffered through Milton Armitage played by Warren Beatty and then Chatsworth Osborne Jr. (Steve Franken) who were his arrogant, wealthy competition. Some of Dobie’s many girlfriends included Marlo Thomas (who became That Girl), Sally Kellerman (who was Hot Lips in the M*A*S*H movie), Ellen Burstyn (starred in many movies), Barbara Bain (who would be in Mission Impossible), and Yvonne Craig (before she was Bat Girl). Two interesting things I learned about this show was that DC Comics created a comic book series of 26 issues about the kids from 1960-1964. Also this show inspired the Scooby Doo Gang in 1969. Fred was based on Dobie, Velma on Zelda, Daphne on Thalia, and Shaggy on Maynard. Garry Marshall also reported that this was one of his main influences for his creation of the show Happy Days. After four years, I guess these kids were too innocent to handle all the crazy situations coming in the sixties and the show ended but has appeared in reruns often since it left the air.

Peter Loves Mary (1960). This couple, played by Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, were married in real life. They play a show business couple who moved to Connecticut.  Luckily they have a housekeeper played by one of my all-time favorites Bea Benaderet who takes care of the house and children. Opposite the Green Acres viewpoint, Mary wants life in suburbia while Peter loves the city. The network didn’t want to weigh in on the argument so they took the show off the air after the first season.

Love On a Rooftop (1966). Judy Carne (pre Laugh-In days) and Peter Duel are a young married couple, living in San Francisco. He is an apprentice architect and she’s an art student, who gave up her dad’s money for love. Rich Little played their neighbor who designed restaurant menus, among other jobs. It was cancelled after one season.  Oddly, in the summer of 1971 it aired as a rerun show but never aired again.

To Rome with Love (1969). John Forsythe tries his hand in another sitcom.  In this one, he plays a widower who has accepted a job at an international school in Rome, and he heads for Europe with his three daughters.  His sister comes along the first season, mainly to try to talk them into going back home to Iowa.  For the second season, they gave her a one-way ticket home and brought Walter Brennan in as Forsythe’s father-in-law. The family lives in Mama Vitale’s boarding house.  After the second season, they all got air fare home and the show was done. Don Fedderson produced this show, and in the second season they had two cross-over episodes, one with the cast of Family Affair and one with Uncle Charlie, Robbie and Katie from My Three Sons.

Bridget Loves Bernie (1972). Bridget, played by Meredith Baxter, marries Bernie, played by David Birney.  The only problem is that she’s Catholic and he’s Jewish.  This would not even be noticed in today’s world, but in 1972 it caused quite a commotion. Her parents were wealthy and Irish.  His parents owned a deli and the couple lived above it. The ratings were very good–the fifth highest rated show, but they were cancelled after the first season anyway. It was the highest rated show to ever be cancelled, and the network finally caved into the pressure of public protests for having an inter-religious marriage. One fun fact is the Meredith Baxter and David Birney married in real life after this show was over.  However, that was before she came out of the closet, which created another mixed marriage . . .

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Love Thy Neighbor (1973). This show was a summer replacement in the days of All in the Family.  Charlie Wilson, a shop steward at Turner Electronics, lives in LA. When new neighbors move in, not only are they black, but the new guy is hired as an efficiency expert at Turner.  The show explored how two couples of different races become friends.  The white couple was played by Ron Masak and Joyce Bulifant.  The black couple was played by Janet MacLachlan and Harrison Page.  The network didn’t love any of them because they sent them packing after 11 episodes.

Loves Me, Loves Me Not (1976). Jane, played by Susan Dey, fresh from the Partridge Family, is a teacher.  Dick (Kip Gilman) is a reporter.  They have a couple of dates with mixed results and aren’t sure if they like each other or not or should continue dating.  Dick’s boss and his wife are also characters on the show.  Apparently CBS decided it loved them not because they were cancelled after one month.

Love, Sidney (1981). If the network thought they had problems when Bridget loved Bernie, they really stirred up a hornet’s nest with this show.  Based on a movie, Sidney Shore, Tony Randall was the first person to play an openly gay character.  Sidney is an adman and lives with a young woman and her daughter, played by Swoosie Kurtz and Kalena Kiff. There were some heart-warming stories including two different episodes when both Sidney and Kurtz’s character had to make peace with less-than-perfect parents. Once again, the network gave into public dissatisfaction and cancelled the show midway through season 2.

Joanie Loves Chachi (1981). This show was a mid-season replacement.  Chachi (Scott Baio) left Milwaukee and Happy Days and moved with his parents (Ellen Travolta and Al Molinaro who had owned Arnolds’s malt shop) to Chicago.  He sang in a restaurant his family owned.  Because Joanie (Erin Moran) loved Chachi, she convinced her parents to let her go to Northwestern to be a nurse, but she spent more time singing with Chachi. Most of the shows involved one of them being jealous of the other and ending the fight with a song. In the first season this new show followed Happy Days and was a huge success. The second season it moved to Thursday and bombed in the ratings. The network sent both Joanie and Chachi back to Milwaukee after the second season where they continued on Happy Days until it went off the air in 1984.

Everybody Loves Raymond (1996). Ray Romano played sports columnist Ray Barrone.  He lived with his wife (Patricia Heaton) and kids, right across the street from his overbearing mother (Doris Roberts), cynical father (Peter Boyle), and jealous older brother (Brad Garrett). No one had any privacy on this street, but there were a lot of poignant episodes. We all knew everybody loved Raymond, but they also loved each other.  In 2004 after 9 seasons, the network decided not everybody loved Raymond, just most people, and they cancelled their sports subscription.

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If you’re not crazy about love right now, apparently you’re in good company because the majority of these shows were cancelled within a year.  If you’re a hopeless romantic, you’re probably watching Everybody Loves Raymond on Nickelodeon. Happy Valentine’s Day, or not.