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.

Photo: flickr.com

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.

Photo: tcm.com
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.

Photo: viennasclassichollywood.com
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.

Photo: pinterest.com

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.

Photo: aurorasginjoint.com

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.

Photo: aurorasginjoint.com

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.

Photo: hometheaterforum.com

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.

Photo: trekdivos79.blogspot.com
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.”

Photo: manfuncle2014.blogspot.com
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.

Photo: imdb.com

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.

Photo: flickr.com
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.

Photo: imdb.com

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.

I Wish You a “Busy Christmas”

Merry Christmas!  I hope you are all enjoying a peaceful and happy day. We have a lot of holiday traditions in our family. When it comes to pop culture “must see” shows, we always watch Frosty, The Snowman; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and a Charlie Brown Christmas, and the other specials are extras if we get them in.  Christmas movies are different for each generation.  I like White Christmas, while my oldest son never misses Elf.  But when it comes to television, one episode we all agree on is “Busy Christmas” from the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  Our family makes an effort to watch this every year together. There is something charming about watching an episode that is more than 60 years old but still speaks to us in how we celebrate Christmas.  Ozzie, after vowing not to, involuntarily agrees to so many Christmas activities that he has no time to put up lights or buy a tree.

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The show first aired in December 19, 1956 . It was the 12th episode of season 5. It was written by Jay Sommers, Don Nelson, Ozzie Nelson, and Alfred Nelson.  Alfred’s only writing credits were 4 Nelson episodes.  Ozzie, of course, helped write almost every episode.  Don Nelson, another brother, enjoyed a long writing career.  He helped Ozzie write the movie Here Come the Nelsons and he went on to write for a variety of shows including Bachelor Father, the Donna Reed Show, the Mothers-in-Law, the Doris Day Show, Bridget Loves Bernie, Herbie the Love Bug, Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, as well as a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet’s later show, Ozzie’s Girls and 326 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Jay Sommers got credit for 146 of the Nelson episodes and went on to write for Dennis the Menace, wrote many Petticoat Junction shows, almost all the Green Acres scripts, and, surprisingly, Hello Larry which we looked at a few weeks ago.

Produced by Ozzie and Leo Pepin, the show’s set decoration was created by Jack Moore.  Moore had six Academy Award nominations and won for Little Women in 1949. The costume designer was George Sedilla, and the show was filmed at the General Service Studios, 1040 N. Las Palmas, Los Angeles.

In addition to the regular cast, Phil Arnold appears as a tailor and Isabelle Randolph is Mrs. Brewster.

This episode opens with Ozzie and Harriet looking at some of their Christmas cards.  Ozzie mentions he wished people took time to write in their cards.  He sees one that is a perfect example of what a card should say.  It has a very warm and sentimental message.  When Harriet agrees it is nice and asks who sent it, Ozzie replies, “Acme Cleaners.”

 

Modern Christmas cards were started by the Hall brothers whose company would become Hallmark.  They were post cards, but people did not have enough room to write what they wanted to tell people they didn’t see often. In the 1930s, Hallmark switched to a “book format” which is our card today.  The cards increased in popularity from the mid-1930s to the 1960s. Hallmark began commissioning famous artists to design cards including Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell. The Nelsons would have had to use regular postage stamps, because Christmas stamps did not debut until 1962. It’s funny that the switch to these cards was made so people could write more, but Ozzie’s complaint (and one you hear often today) is that people didn’t write anything personal.

 

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Scene 2 cuts to Ozzie trying to maneuver through a mad rush of people shopping in a department store.  His arms are full of wrapped packages. He tries to ask a clerk for a Donkey Party game.  Giving up, he takes cover in a seating area and ends up sitting next to Mrs. Brewster.  We learn it is a week before Christmas. They are watching a busy crowd and listening over the speaker as Irving Muller is lost and they attempt to find his mother.  Eventually they find her, but now Irving is gone.  Ozzie reminisces about a Christmas when he and Harriet were first married.  They were looking at the tree when all the sudden they heard “Silent Night” and were caught up in the beauty of the song and the carolers on Christmas Eve.  Mrs. Brewster says that is perfect because they would like the Nelsons to join them for caroling this Christmas Eve.  Ozzie says he’ll talk to Harriet, and if she agrees, they will.  Mrs. Brewster smiles and says Harriet has already agreed to it if Ozzie was willing. Over the loudspeaker they hear little Ozzie Nelson is missing and then the message is corrected that Mrs. Nelson is looking for Mr. Nelson.

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Donkey Party was a version of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey. It came with a poster and 24-30 tails. Some of the other classic toys from this year are Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, a Slinky Dog, and a Lone Ranger guitar.

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Following World War II, the nation displayed an era of peace, productivity, and prosperity and this could be seen in the nation’s department stores.  At Christmas the windows were magical places where beautiful scenes were created, often with moving parts.  Ozzie’s presents were wrapped because that was a service department stores provided, saving the customer time later. Here are some vintage options Ozzie might have been able to choose from.

 

By Scene 3, a few days have passed. Ozzie is helping Harriet hang a wreath on the wall. When Harriet asks him about the tree and putting up lights, he says it’s too early to get the tree, and he decided not to put up lights this year.  He tells her he is not going to get overly busy again this year.  The doorbell rings and Doc Williams enters in.  Doc tells Ozzie that he has been appointed entertainment chairman of the Men’s Club for Christmas, and instead of the regular pageant, they have decided to do a shortened version of the Christmas Carol. Doc will be playing Bob Cratchet. Ozzie tells Harriet this is exactly what he was talking about.  They make one of the busiest men in town chairman and how unfair that is.  Doc looks confused and then starts to laugh.  He assumes Ozzie is auditioning for the role of Scrooge and he gives him the role. Doc asks when the lights are going up, and when Harriet says Ozzie isn’t putting them up this year, Ozzie says yes he is, he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

 

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I have a beautifully illustrated book of  The Christmas Carol, and I try to find time to read it each year.  I also have a Scrooge in his striped night shirt, who is about 4 feet and I love him, although most of my family find him creepy.  My grandfather had a set of Dickens books and liked The Christmas Carol, and I find it inspiring that many generations have enjoyed and learned from this book.

Scene 4 finds Ozzie in his garage a day or so later trying to untangle lights. His friend Joe Randolph stops by and says the guy who always helped as Santa at the orphanage Christmas Eve party moved away.  Now they realized he used his own suit.  Ozzie offers his suit; however, Joe thinks his is also offering to be Santa.  Joe has to hurry off before Ozzie can explain.

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Ozzie would be filling in for Santa because the real Big Guy was too busy Christmas Eve delivering gifts. NORAD began tracking his movements in 1955, so the Nelsons would have been able to follow his progress around the globe.

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Scene 5 is December 23. Mrs. Brewster has dropped off a song, and Doc has dropped off his part. Ozzie climbs the ladder to hang lights and has Rick practice the part of Scrooge with him.  Rick, wearing a sheet like a ghost, leans out the window and plays Marley, ad-libbing the part till Ozzie tells him he must learn the part the way it’s written. David comes in the room and tells Rick to take off the sheet because it’s from David’s bed.  The boys get into a conversation and walk off, leaving Ozzie wondering what is going on.  Ozzie remembers he has to get the Santa suit out of the attic and goes to retrieve it. Mrs. Brewster stops by before he can get back on the ladder to bring more music and asks him to please learn the bass part, because she is short on basses. As he goes back up the ladder to put up the lights, he is called to dinner.

 

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Scene 6 begins on Christmas Eve day.  Ozzie is walking around practicing his play part and singing his bass parts. He is just leaving the house to get a tree when the phone rings.  It’s Joe Randolph saying that there are so many children at the orphanage, they will have to do two parties instead of one.  Then Doc stops by and says he was called to the hospital for an emergency and Ozzie will have to go pick up the costumes. David offers to drive him.  They rush to pick up costumes from the tailor, then to the orphanage, and then to the play.  During the play, Ozzie knocks a picture off the wall, then drops a prop and, when he picks it up, his pants rip.

Everyone is back at home for Scene 7.  Ozzie is complaining that once again he was too busy.  He talks about how embarrassing the play was and how he hurt his knee hopping in and out of the car.  David says the audience thought what Ozzie did was part of the play and it was funny. Then David says he got a parking ticket.  That is the last straw for Ozzie, but when Harriet inspects it, she realizes it is an invitation to the Policeman’s Ball. At that moment, the carolers arrive to pick up the Nelson family. They are singing “Silent Night” and the family gets quiet and listens to the song, realizing how beautiful it is and what Christmas is all about.  Ozzie goes to get his coat which Harriet has put in the den.  Ricky comes into the hall with a Charlie Brown tree saying that was all they had left when he got to the lot.  As Ozzie opens the den door, a huge tree is revealed decorated with bulbs and tinsel with tons of presents under it. Harriet and Ricky said they did it while Dave and Ozzie were gone.

Tree decorations is one area that has changed drastically today.  Rarely do you see tinsel, garland, or snow flocking.  Back in the 1950s you might have seen bubble lights, or popcorn strands, and the rainbow colors of Shiny Brite ornaments.

 

They go outside for Scene 8 to join the carolers.  It begins to snow lightly. Doc mentions it’s too bad lights didn’t get put up, but then Ricky hits the light switch and he explains he and Harriet took care of those too. The group moves off singing “Deck the Halls.”

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That’s the end of the 1956 episode, but in 1964, Ozzie replayed this show and added a Scene 10.  It is now 1964.  David is married to June Blair and they have a son Danny. Rick is married to Kris Harmon and they have a daughter Tracy. The entire Nelson family gathers around the tree.  Ricky plays his guitar, sitting in front of the fireplace and decorated tree and sings “The Christmas Song.”  While he sings, the camera pans around watching the rest of the family. It ends with everyone wishing the viewers a merry Christmas.

 

So much of our culture has changed today from 1956; however, thankfully many Christmas traditions remain.  We still send and get cards, although some of them are on the computer.  We still put up lights and a tree; we just tend to do it earlier, so we can enjoy it longer. We still do things for others like orphanage parties; we just don’t have actual orphanages much anymore. We also can get quiet, listening to “Silent Night” and be deeply touched by the season and what it means to us. This episode is a reminder of that for me every year, and I look forward to it.