Milton Frome: What a Character!

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

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

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

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The Adventures of Superman

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

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I Love Lucy

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

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The Monkees

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

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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

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

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The Jerry Lewis Show

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

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Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

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

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 4: Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver

We wrap up our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.

Mary Wickes

Photo: imdb.com

It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner

Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).

Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.

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One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

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In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna Reed Show, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: The Gertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.  

Photo: en.wikipedia.org
The cast of Doc

As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.

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In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.

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In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.

Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.

Susan Oliver

Photo: amazon.com

More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.

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on The Wild Wild West

In 1949, she traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.

Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.

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I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.

Photo: en.wikipedia.com
on Peyton Place

Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.

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on Murder She Wrote

One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.

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In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.

At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.

Oliver was an interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.

Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 3: Henry Jones and Olan Soule

My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.

Henry Jones

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr.  Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”

When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”

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In 1948 he married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but divorced in 1961.

Bridging the gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.

Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”

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His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.

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He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64.  Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.

During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.

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In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.

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Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.

Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.

Olan Soule

Photo: pinterest.com

Olan Soule’s timeline was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.

In 1929 he married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they had two children.

For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”

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However, he certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.

The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.

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He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.

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He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.

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He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.

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In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.

The Towering Inferno Director: John Guillermin US Premiere: 10 December 1974 Copyright 1974 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Warner Bros. Inc.

In 1994, Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.

Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 2: Hope Summers and Madge Blake

Today we continue our series, Just A Couple of Characters, about character actors we recognize but might not know much about. Hope Summers and Madge Blake are two actresses you will recognize if you watched sitcoms in the 1960s or 1970s.

Hope Summers

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born Sarah Hope Summers in 1902 in Mattoon, Illinois, Hope Summers often played the friendly, but nosy, neighbor. She’s best recognized as Clara from The Andy Griffith Show.

Summers became interested in theater early in her life. She attended Northwestern, majoring in speech. After graduation she stayed at the University and taught speech and diction. She then moved to Peoria and headed the Speech Department at Bradley University. She joined a few community theaters, putting on one-woman shows. She also acted in a few dramatic radio shows.

She married Claude Witherell in 1927, and they were married until his death in 1967. The couple had two children.

In 1950, she transitioned to television. She appeared in an early comedy series, Hawkins Falls: A Television Novel. Like Edward Andrews, she was often cast in roles older than her actual age. She became a popular actress quickly. She continued to appear in a variety of shows throughout the 1950s including Bachelor Father, Private Secretary, Wagon Train, Dennis the Menace, and the Loretta Young Show.

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On The Rifleman

From 1958-1960, she would appear in The Rifleman as Hattie Denton.

In 1961, she received the role she would become most famous for, Clara, Bee’s best friend on The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy Griffith left the show in 1968, Hope continued with Mayberry RFD in her role of Clara for five episodes. Clara was a lonely spinster who lived next door to Andy and his family. She and Bee had fun sharing bits of gossip and talking about current events. Clara had a good heart and though she and Bee could get upset with each other, they truly cared about each other.

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While playing the role of Clara, she continued to guest in series throughout the 1960s. She appeared on many of the hit shows of that time such as Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Phyllis Diller Show, Marcus Welby, That Girl, and Bewitched.

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During the 1970s, Summers kept her career going strong, appearing in Hawaii Five-0, M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie, and Welcome Back Kotter.

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Playing a nice witch in Rosemary’s Baby

Although, Summers began her acting career during the second half of her life, she was also featured in several well-known movies. In 1960, she was in Inherit the Wind, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, among others.

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Summers also was famous as the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in commercials.

In 1978 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and quit acting. She passed away from the disease in 1979.

Madge Blake

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While Hope Summers was part of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show, Madge Blake was busy portraying Aunt Harriet on Batman.

Born Madge Cummings in 1899 in Kansas, she, like Hope Summers, became interested in acting at a young age. Her father was a Methodist minister and he refused to allow her to give it a try. Oddly enough, Madge’s maternal uncle was Milburn Stone, Doc on Gunsmoke.

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Although they later divorced, Madge married James Blake and they had one child. She had a fascinating career. Both she and James worked for the government during the war. They had top secret clearance for their project working on the construction of the detonator for the atomic bomb in Utah. They also performed tests on equipment used in the Manhattan Project.

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Also, like Summers, Blake turned to acting at a later age. When she was 50, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. She only had twenty years in the business, yet she managed to achieve an impressive 124 acting credits.

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Singin’ in the Rain

Blake would appear in 47 films in smaller, but impressive, roles. Some of her movies included An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, The Tender Trap, Bells Are Ringing, Ain’t Misbehaving, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.

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Margaret Mondello

Beginning her television career in 1954, she racked up an impressive amount of guest star roles and several recurring roles. She played Tillie, the president of the Jack Benny fan club on The Jack Benny Show. She played Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver. An interesting aside is that she was asked to play Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show where she would have worked with Hope Summers. Because she was locked into the role of Mrs. Mondello, she declined. She took the role of Mrs. Barnes, Joey’s mother, on The Joey Bishop Show. On the Real McCoys, she played Flora MacMichael, Grandpa McCoy’s love interest; Nurse Phipps on Dr. Kildare; and the role she became best known for, Aunt Harriet on Batman.  

Photo: channel.superhero.com

The network was worried about Batman and Robin living alone together on Batman, so the role of Aunt Harriet was added. The story line was that she raised Bruce Wayne in the family mansion. Their interaction with Aunt Harriet was also a reason for the dynamic duo to appear in their non-hero roles more often.

It would seem that coming into acting later in life and then appearing in so many movies and recurring television appearances would have kept her quite busy. But in addition to these appearances, she was cast in many of the most popular shows during her twenty years on television. During that time, you can find her on dramas like Public Defender, Lassie, The Restless Gun, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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On I Love Lucy

Of course, she was meant to play comedy and she appeared on an incredible number of sitcoms. Just to name a few, there of them: George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Doris Day Show. Pretty amazing.

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On Bewitched

I read over and over that one of her best performances was in the pilot for Dennis the Menace where she plays Dennis’s babysitter. I have not been able to watch that show, but I will definitely check that out.

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On Dennis the Menace

In 1969, Blake passed away from a heart attack after she broke her leg. She was only 70, or we might have had a much longer list of television series for her.

Hope Summers and Madge Blake had a lot in common. They both became interested in acting at an early age, they both had major careers before acting, they both began acting in the second half of their life, they both played neighborly types–Summers, nosier, and Blake, more ditzy. They also both had respectable film careers paralleling their television ones. Their television roles may have been smaller, but they were memorable, they are definitely two characters worth watching.

We All Love Gracie: The Burns and Allen Show

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

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

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

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

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Ralph Levy with George and Gracie

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo posted on post-gazette.com

Paul Henning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell

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

Bea Benaderet and Larry Keating

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

Fred Clark, Hal March and John Brown

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

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

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Ronnie Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Ralph: How’s that?

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

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

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

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

Gracie: I can’t believe it.

Blanche: Why not?

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

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

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

Blanche: Probably flu.

Gracie: No, he drove the car.

 

My top ten favorite shows are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Alice

By the time February arrives, I am typically tired of winter and ready for some nicer weather.  Since I am not traveling anywhere warm this month, I decided to indulge myself and learn more about some of the actors and actresses behind some of my favorite television characters this month.

 

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I begin with Ann B. Davis.  Most of us recognize her as Alice on The Brady Bunch, but Ann was quite an established actress long before the show began, receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

 

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Ann was born in 1926 in New York. Her mother was a professional actress who performed with many stock companies and smaller theaters. She had an older brother and a twin sister Harriet. In a foreshadow perhaps of her future career, Ann made $2 working with puppets at age 6. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where Ann spent most of her school years, graduating from high school in Erie.

 

She went on to the University of Michigan where she majored in pre-med. Her brother toured the country as the lead dancer in a production of Oklahoma which inspired her to try acting.  She loved acting so much that she changed her major to drama and speech, graduating from college in 1948.

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She paid her dues for six years, performing in California in various theaters and stock companies, before moving to Hollywood. She received parts in several stage productions including The Women and Twelfth Night. In 1953, she was one of the musical judges on Jukebox Jury. The show aired Sunday nights and typically minor stars would judge new music.

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Her first film was Strategic Air Command in 1955 with Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately, her scene was cut from the film before it was released. She would go on to star in six additional films including A Man Called Peter (1955), The Best Things in Life are Free (1956), Pepe (1960), All Hands On Deck (1961), Lover Come Back (1961), Naked Gun (1994), and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).

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In 1958 Ann accepted a position on the SAG board of governors.

 

She explored her love of theater throughout her career and in 1960 she replaced Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress.

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Ann found most of her fame in television. She began appearing in series in 1956 when she was on Matinee Theater and Lux Video Theater.

 

In 1955 she received a starring role in The Bob Cummings Show as Schultzy, Bob’s assistant. For four years, she loved Bob from afar while he chased after many of the models he photographed. His sister who lived with him was trying to reform him, so he would settle down, but we knew deep in his heart he loved Schultzy. Ann won two Emmys for her portrayal of Schultzy.

 

When the show ended, she went back to making appearances, taking roles on Wagon Train (1960), The New Breed (1962), McKeever and the Colonel (1963), and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater (1964).

 

During 1965-66, she would receive another starring role appearing as Miss Wilson, the physical education teacher on The John Forsythe Show. The premise was that John had inherited a private girls’ school from his aunt. A bachelor and a retired air force major, he later becomes a spy and the school staff is eliminated from the show.

 

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After the cancellation of Forsythe’s series, Davis appeared on The Phyllis Diller Show (1966), Insight (1968), and Love American Style three times from 1970-1973. Between the years 1959 and 1969, Ann volunteered by traveling with the USO at various times.

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The year 1969 brought her the role she would become famous for as Alice Nelson on The Brady Bunch.  Ann played Alice from 1969-1995 exclusively. Ann might hold a record for playing the same character in six different series: The Brady Bunch (1969), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976), The Brady Brides (1981), Day by Day (1981), The Bradys (1990), and Hi Honey I’m Home (1991). She also reprised her role as Alice in two made-for-tv movies: The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas

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Along with Florence Henderson and Barry Williams, she was in every Brady Bunch episode. Alice was a friend to each of the Brady kids never playing favorites, but on one episode she gives Jan a locket because they were both middle children with an older glamorous sister Emily/Marcia and a younger cutesy sister Myrtle/Cindy. In real life, Ann said that she felt Eve Plumb was the best actor of the Brady kids.

 

Florence Henderson and Ann remained friends for life.

 

On the show, Alice never got far from her roots.  She had gone to the same high school Greg and Marcia attended. Becoming a housekeeper for the Bradys before Mike’s wife died, she stayed on when he married Carol and her three daughters moved in. Alice spent as much time mediating family disputes, doling out advice, trying to keep the kids from getting in trouble with their parents, and dispensing sarcastic words of wisdom to the entire family as she did cleaning and cooking.

Alice rarely was seen out of her sky-blue uniform. She dated Sam the butcher and kept waiting for his marriage proposal. They often bowled and won a prize for their Charleston dancing. I think Sam knew all along, he couldn’t propose till Mike and Carol became empty nesters.  Alice was never a maid, she was a valued member of the family who went on vacations with the family and was invited to their school performances and into their friends’ lives. In today’s economy, Alice would probably net $50,000 a year for her job, but we know it was never about the money for her.

 

Ann received endorsements from her Alice role as well. She was in television commercials for many products including Ikea, Ford Motor Co., Shake and Bake, and Minute Rice.

 

Her role as Alice also led to her publishing Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook with recipes inspired by the show or contributed from cast members.

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In 1976, she moved to Denver to live with Bishop Frey and his wife Barbara in their Episcopal community, a large historical home.  For many years, Ann had volunteered with the local and national Episcopal church conferences. When Bishop Frey accepted the position as Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, Ann moved with the couple. She again moved with them to San Antonio Texas. Ann was very committed to her church and her prayer life and performed a lot of volunteer work for her church. She also appreciated her fans.  According to Bishop Frey, she spent several days even at the end of her life answering fan mail.

Ann considered herself semi-retired from show business, but in the 1990s, she made several films and accepted a role with a theater group for Arsenic and Old Lace as well as a world tour of a show called Crazy for You. She also made appearances on TV Land for award shows in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

 

Ann was extremely healthy in her golden years, but she fell, hitting her head which caused her death in 2014.

Alice Nelson has become a pulp culture icon; however, like Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, there was so much more to Ann B. Davis’s career than her role as a maid. She had an amazing career in theatre, film, and television. While I appreciate her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show and Miss Wilson on The John Forsythe Show, Alice took care of me, along with the Brady kids, in the early seventies, and I will always have a special place in my heart for her.