Marion Lorne: Everyone’s Favorite Aunt

As we begin 2022, we are getting to know some of our favorite actresses from the golden age of television. Last week we learned more about Aunt Bee and today we look at another one of our favorite aunts: Aunt Clara on Bewitched played by the lovable Marion Lorne.

Marion Lorne: How to Call an Electrician — Aunt Clara / Ben Franklin on  Bewitched - YouTube
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Like Frances Bavier, Lorne also had successful careers in Broadway, films, and television. She was born in 1883 in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor. And also, like Bavier, Lorne attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

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Although Lorne had her first Broadway debut in 1905, she also had a successful stage career in London. She and her husband Walter C. Hackett had their own theater, the Whitehall. He wrote the plays and she acted in them. One source I read said none of their plays lasted less than 125 nights. She and Walter married in 1911 and were together until his death in 1944. Like Bavier, she also had no children.

Shortly before her husband died, the couple returned to the United States, but it wasn’t until 1951 that she dipped her toe into the silver screen pool. She appeared in Strangers on a Train, the Alfred Hitchcock mystery.  She would appear in several other big-screen films including The Graduate.

Streaming Time Capsule: Mister Peepers - The TV Professor
With the cast of Mister Peepers Photo:thetvprofessor.com

The following year she was offered a role as Mrs. Gurney the English teacher on Mister Peepers. She would continue in the role until the show went off the air in 1955. In 1957 she appeared with Joan Caulfield in the sitcom Sally. Lorne played a widow who owns a department store. Before and after these two shows she appeared on several series including Philco Theater, Suspicion, and The DuPont Show of the Month.

In 1964, she took on the role Aunt Clara, Samantha’s aunt on Bewitched. Clara was a witch who was losing her powers due to old age, and her spells often resulted in very different outcomes than she planned. Clara was known for her doorknob collection on the show and, in real life, Lorne also had a collection of doorknobs. She appeared in 27 episodes of the show from 1964-1968. Lorne died of a heart attack in 1968 at age 84.

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Clara and her doorknobs

Lorne was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Clara ten days before she died. When she won, Elizabeth Montgomery accepted the award on her behalf. Lorne had also been nominated for her Bewitched role in 1967 (beat out by Frances Bavier for The Andy Griffith Show). In addition, she was nominated for an Emmy in 1954 and 1955 for Mister Peepers (won by Vivian Vance for I Love Lucy and Audrey Meadows for The Honeymooners) and in 1958 for Sally (won by Ann B Davis for Love That Bob).

From 1958-1964 she also made 147 appearances on The Garry Moore Show. That was an amazing cast including Carol Burnett. Carol said that it was a happy, happy show. When she got her own variety show, she took everything she learned and ran her own show the same way.

The Garry Moore Show (TV Series 1958–1967) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
The Garry Moore Show cast

I think Marion was born to play Aunt Clara.  She and Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur were two of my very favorite characters on almost any 1960s sitcom. When she discussed her career, she said that “In my long, long career, I have played everything, but comedy has always been my favorite.” Fans may have loved her delightful but zany roles, but that does not take anything away from her acting skills. Hitchcock said it was hard to compare Marion to an American actress in her younger days. He said “Miss Lorne might have been compared during her London days to Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell . . . all of them put together—and more. She was more than an actress in England; she was an institution.”

Her Bewitched costars also adored her. Bill Asher, Montgomery’s husband and show producer, said “I try to arrange it so we always have a script for her to do. She’s a big, big part of our show.” Montgomery complimented her saying, “The contribution she makes to the show is incredible. When the character of Aunt Clara came into being, she was the only one we even thought of.” The director, Paul Davis, succinctly said, “I love her.” When she passed away, her character was never played by anyone else. That’s high praise considering Gladys Kravitz, Louise Tate, and Darrin all had several people play their role during the show’s run.

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Considering the fact that she spent 63 years in show business and only 17 of them were on television, she certainly made her mark.  She was only in six television shows ever but in three of them she was a regular cast member, and she was nominated for an Emmy for each one of them.  That is a pretty impressive record. So, did Lorne have any regrets?  Just one. She said “My favorite programs are westerns, and I have never been in one.” I like to think she has starred in a few westerns during her time in Heaven.  I wish I was able to see one of her stage performances from London or the skits from Garry Moore’s show. I had a lot of fun learning a little more about Marion Lorne, one of my all-time favorite actresses from the classical age of television.

Celebrating National Kansas Day with Vivian Vance

As we continue to celebrate National State Days, this week we are visiting Kansas. Our Sunflower star is Vivian Vance. Vivian was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1909. Her family moved to Independence when she was six. She knew she wanted to be an actress, but her mother’s strict religious beliefs prohibited her. She began sneaking out of her room at night to perform and eventually moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she changed her last name from Jones to Vance.Vivian married Joseph Shearer Danneck Jr. in 1928 at age 19 but they divorced in 1931.

Vivian Vance Hated One Thing About Being On 'I Love Lucy'
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In 1930 she was hired for her first job at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. After appearing in many other plays for the group, the local theater community paid her way to New York so she could study with Eva Le Gallienne.

In 1932, Vance began working on Broadway and was often a chorus member. In 1937 she replaced Kay Thompson in “Hooray for What!” and then began receiving supporting roles. In 1941, she joined Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in Cole Porter’s musical “Let’s Face It” for 500 performances. She would appear in 25 plays with her last being “Harvey” in 1977.

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In 1933 Vance tried marriage again, wedding George Koch, but that relationship also ended in divorce in 1940. Her third marriage to Philip Ober in 1941 would also last only 8 years.

Until 1950 she was offered some small roles in big screen in several films. In 1949, she appeared in her first television series, Philco TV Playhouse.

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In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to launch their sitcom I Love Lucy. Ball was hoping to cast Barbara Pepper or Bea Benarderet in the role of Ethel Mertz. Bea had already taken the role of Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. CBS declined to hire Pepper because they said she had an addiction to alcohol. After many roles as “The Dame” in the movies, Pepper later played Doris Ziffel on Green Acres. It’s interesting that CBS allowed William Frawley to be hired for the show because he had a well-known alcohol problem at that time, but Desi gave him strict rules.

Director Marc Daniels had seen Vance perform in the “Voice of the Turtle” and suggested her for the role. She would play Ethel for 179 episodes. She was nominated for her work in 1954, 1956, and 1957, winning in 1954.

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Apparently, she was a very good actress because although she and William Frawley who played her husband Fred had great comedic timing, they could not stand each other. Vivian wasn’t happy that she had to wear frumpy clothing and that Frawley was supposed to be her husband because he was 22 years older than her. He overheard a derogatory comment she made about their age difference, and they never developed any type of cordial friendship after that. However, their coworkers claimed they were professionals and treated each other with respect on the set.

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Vance with Frawley, Arnaz, and Ball–Photo: hollywoodmemorabilia.com

When the sitcom ended, Vance continued to play Ethel on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. She and Frawley were offered a spin-off series, but Vance passed because she didn’t want to continue working with Frawley. Vance was interested in another show however, and Desilu, Ball and Arnaz’s production company, put together a show called Guestward Ho! for her, but the network rejected the pilot. Desilu made some changes to the show and hired Joanne Dru for the lead. ABC picked it up but cancelled it after one season.

In 1961, Vance married John Dodds, an agent, editor and publisher. They moved to Stamford, Connecticut, and Vance always felt pulled between her marriage and career. In 1974 the couple moved to California. Vivian had no children from her four marriages but was godmother to Lovin’ Spoonful band member John Sebastian.

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Candy Moore, Ball, Jimmy Garrett, Ralph Hart and Vance–Photo: hitstv.com

When Ball put together a new show, The Lucy Show in 1962, she invited Vance to costar on the show. The concept featured Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow, raising two children in Danfield New York. Vance played her best friend Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son. After a few years, Vance wanted a bit more control and a bit of controversy developed between Lucy and Vivian. Vivian left the show, but they resolved their differences and she guest starred on the show and joined Lucy on reunion shows and on her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy which ran from 1968-1974.

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Vance had very few television roles after leaving Ball’s sitcom, although she did make appearances on Off to See the Wizard, Love American Style, Rhoda, and Sam.

She was best known during those years as the Maxine, the Maxwell Coffee lady starring in numerous commercials for the coffee company. She was paid $250,000 for her three-year contract.

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The last time Vivian and Lucy appeared together was Ball’s special Lucy Calls the President in 1977. Not long afterward, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. She died in 1979 from bone cancer.

Both Ball and Arnaz commented on her death. Desi shared that “it’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”

Ball commented on Vivian’s performance as Ethel: “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason—and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.”  Both Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March of 2012.

When Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance Said Goodbye For The Last Time
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Some actors have the ability to adapt to a variety of television roles and we’re grateful for them. Other stars create one that is so memorable it becomes completely entwined with part of our life. Thank you Vivian Vance for being Lucy’s best friend. While we love Lucy’s antics, you are the one the majority of us identified with and for seventy years you have been influencing comedy and making new fans.