December Bride “Springs Into Action”

Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the earliest sitcoms, December Bride, which aired on CBS from 1954-59. It began life as a radio show in 1952.

Cast of December Bride–Photo: tumbral.com

The show was created by Parke Levy who wrote the episodes as well and claimed to base Lily on his own mother-in-law. He owned 50% of the program; Desilu, producer, owned 25%; and CBS owned 25%. Harry Morgan said he liked Desi Arnaz very much. They cast rarely saw Lucy and saw Desi frequently but not in a negative way; he just might show up to see how things were going. (As an aside, I remember an interview with Bob Schiller, who wrote for this show along with many others, loved the name of “Parke Levy” and said it sounded like a Jewish housing development in New York.) Levy also wrote the film scripts for My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West.

Spring Byington and Frances Rafferty–Photo: vintagetvandmore.com

One fun fact is that both Fred de Cordova and William Asher were directors for this sitcom. Both would go on to long careers; de Cordova would produce The Tonight Show and Burns and Allen, direct My Three Sons, and both produce and direct for The Jack Benny Show. Asher would go on to direct I Love Lucy and Alice and both produce and direct most of the Bewitched episodes.

Spring Byington–Photo: pinterest.com

Spring Byington starred as Lily Ruskin, a lively widow who was looking for the right man.

Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty–Photo: pinterest.com

She lives with her daughter Ruth Henshaw (Frances Rafferty) and son-in-law Matt (Dean Miller) who help her in the search, as does her best friend, Hilda Crocker (Verna Felton).

Lily stays busy writing an advice column for the LA Gazette, “Tips for Housewives.”

Verna Felton–Photo: upperjacksonco

Pete Porter (Harry Morgan) is her next-door neighbor who also shows up often. (Next week we will learn about his spin-off from this show, Pete ‘n Gladys.) Pete enjoyed watching Matt and Lily’s interactions which he viewed as positive, unlike his relationship with his mother-in-law which he viewed negatively.

A lot of guest stars showed up including Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz, Edgar Bergen, Madge Blake, Barbara Eden, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Kulp, Fred MacMurray, Howard McNear, Isabel Randolph, and Mickey Rooney

Harry Morgan–Photo: wikimedia.com

The scripts seemed about what you would expect for this era. In one of the funniest shows, Lily fails to deliver plans for Matt and as a result, Desi Arnaz’s family room collapses. In another one, Lily arranges for Pete to take riding lessons because his fear of horses is standing in the way of him earning a huge commission selling insurance to a wealthy ranch owner.

The gold standard for this decade seems to be Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s show and the writing doesn’t measure up to that but seems like a fun show to watch.

Maxwell House Coffee was their sponsor for the entire run of the show.

The show was on Monday nights after I Love Lucy and had top-ten ratings for the first four years. For season five, the network moved it to Thursdays, where it was up against Zorro and The Ed Wynn Show. Ratings declined significantly, and it was cancelled. Fans have noted that the last season’s scripts were not as well written and the show had probably run its course.

Harry Morgan discussed the show for the Academy of Television interviews. He said it was a nice show to work on; he described it as “fluffy and light” and “typical for the time.” He said he enjoyed doing the show, all the cast was wonderful, especially Spring who was an amazing actress, and he became good friends with Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty. He said that it was a well-done show and he had a lot of fun during those five years.

I watched the episode about Desi’s family room caving in. Morgan’s description was pretty accurate. The show might not present deep philosophical moments, but it was well written. One of the bright spots was Desi’s butler played by Richard Deacon. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a few hours than watching several of these classic television episodes.

Double Trouble: The Patty Duke Show

The Patty Duke Show was one I always enjoyed, but it was never a “must watch” for me. I think I viewed it as a show that was “good” because it wasn’t “bad.” I decided it was time to give it a more in-depth exploration.

Photo: imdb.com

Patty Duke began her television and movie career in the mid-1950s. She appeared on a handful of shows in that decade. In 1962 she took on her Oscar-winning role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. The following year she received her own television series at age 16. The show would continue until 1966, producing 105 episodes.

Patty not only starred in the show as Patty Lane, but she was also Cathy Lane, Patty’s identical twin. The girls’ fathers are not only brothers but identical twins, hence the look-alike cousins. Although they look the same, they have very different personalities. You can tell them apart because Patty’s hair is usually flipped up while Cathy has a more sophisticated hairdo, usually curled down. Patty was chatty and a typical New York teenager who loves rock and roll. Cathy is more cultured and loves the ballet and classical music. Patty gets herself into some big misadventures and Cathy usually bales her out.

Photo: youtube.com

The plots were situations that were likely to happen to a teenager in the sixties. For example, Patty wants to buy a new dress, so she starts a babysitting service that goes awry; Patty falls in love with her French teacher; or after school the kids eat a cake, only to find out it was for a contest. The three of them bake a replacement without their parents realizing what happened.  There were also episodes that could only involve twins. In one show, Cathy accidentally is given a shot for Patty. Cathy has a bad reaction to it and must miss the school dance. Patty decides to go to the dance with Cathy’s boyfriend as “Cathy” so her relationship with the boy continues.

Patty’s double is Rita McLaughlin Walter. She usually was seen only as “the back of a head” and at times you can see her as a background character. Rita continued her acting career and was seen in As The World Turns from 1970-1981.

Having a star with a dual role was challenging at the time. Special effects were not very high-tech in the mid-1960s. When Duke played both characters in the same frame, a split screen was used.

With Cathy’s family in Europe, she is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle, Patty’s parents are Natalie (Jean Byron) and Martin (William Schallert). Martin manages a newspaper. Patty has a younger brother Ross (Paul O’Keefe) and a boyfriend Richard (Eddie Applegate).

THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, (l-r): Jean Byron, Paul O”Keefe, William Schallert, Patty Duke, Eddie Applegate, 1963-66

ABC wanted to feature Duke in her own show but didn’t have a concept. The show’s creators were Sidney Sheldon and William Asher. (Sheldon would go on to create I Dream of Jeannie and Asher would was the producer for Gidget and Bewitched with his wife Elizabeth Montgomery.) Patty spent a week with the Sheldon family so Sidney could observe her. Sidney said he felt she almost had a dual personality and that gave him the idea to have the identical cousins. Asher and Sheldon wrote most of the episodes.

Because Patty was a minor, the show was filmed in New York City where child labor laws were more liberal than in California. The taping took place at Chelsea Studios in Manhattan. When Duke turned 18 in the last season, the entire production was moved to California, even though Duke preferred to stay in New York.

Photo: dvdtalk.com

The theme song, “Cousins,” was sung by the Skip Jacks, the same group that sang the theme for The Flintstones. At the time, Stella Stevens, a future actress, was part of the group. The lyrics captured the opposite personalities the cousins had. The song was composed by Sid Raimin and Robert Wells. The lyrics are:

Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere,

From Zanzibar to Barclay Square

But Patty’s only seen the sight

A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights

What a crazy pair!

But they’re cousins,

Identical cousins all the way

One pair of matching bookends,

Different as night and day

Where Cathy adores a minuet,

The Ballet Russes, and crepe suzette,

Our Patty loves to rock and roll,

A hot dog makes her lose control

What a wild duet!

Still, they’re cousins,

Identical cousins and you’ll find,

They laugh alike, they walk alike,

At times they even talk alike

You can lose your mind,

When cousins are two of a kind

When asked what she did to give each cousin her own personality, Duke said, “it was to eliminate certain behaviors for each character. For instance, Cathy never talks with her hands. Patty always talks with her hands. Cathy would never wear ruffles, because they weren’t dignified. Patty would wear anything that was hot for a minute. But it was hard to get a whole person for each of them.”

Photo: boringoldwhiteguy.blogspot.com

Patty said although she played a typical Brooklyn teen, she was not one. She lived a very isolated life. Her managers were very strict and may have been abusive. She lived with them and worked most of her childhood. When she had to do a teenage dance, they needed to bring in regular kids to show her.

The show did well in the ratings every year it aired. However, ABC decided to get rid of all their black and white shows and replace them with color production. United Artists asked for a lot of money to make the change and the network decided it would be cheaper to acquire a new show rather than spend a lot of money moving from black and white to color on this show, although there may have been more factors to the decision. Patty was trying to terminate her relationship with her managers once she became a legal adult. Patty also suffered from mental health issues but at this time didn’t realize what was going on. Later she would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The series went into syndication almost immediately and continued into the 1970s. In 1988, the show debuted on Nick at Nite where it stayed until 1993. Currently it is on and off ME Tv’s schedule. DVDs were released in 2009 and 2010.

Photo: pinterest.com

Although the show ended in 1966, in 1999 a tv movie was filmed, The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights. All the original characters returned. We learn that Patty and Richard had gotten married and had a son who is also married with a daughter. Patty and Richard are divorced when the movie begins but reconcile at the end. Cathy lives in Scotland with her teenage son; she is a widow. The plot is a standard one. Patty is a drama teacher at Brooklyn Heights High School and her old nemesis Sue Ellen wants to raze it and put up a mall.

Photo: youtube.com

The 1999 movie was not Patty Lane’s last appearance, however. In 2009, Duke starred in a Social Security public service announcement (psa) as both Patty and Cathy. Though Jean who played her mother passed away in 2006, Schallert and reprised his role for a second Social Security psa.

Photo: littlethings.com

Duke always remained close to her “father” and “brother.” She said Schallert was the “dad I never got to spend time with.”  “He has always been able to make me laugh until I had to spit up. He was also a solid figure to me.” She also revealed that “the family we created in the show was very much a family. That was my safety zone.”

Photo: forums.tcm.com

The Patty Duke Show was a solid show. Like The Donna Reed Show, it captured a slice of life in the 1960s. Patty received an Emmy nomination in 1964 and a Golden Globe nomination in 1966.

Photo: pinterest.com

Sadly, Patty told a story later in life that she was not able to watch the show when she was acting on it. One day when she was visiting her husband at a military base, she was in the waiting room, clicking through tv channels for something to watch and there she was on the screen. It must have been a very strange feeling to see yourself looking happy and normal at a time that was sad and confusing.

Photo: express.co.uk

Since the cast was so close, they provided Patty some normalcy and security in a life that was anything but most of the time. The show is about a typical teenager played by a teenager.  It should have been Duke’s easiest role, yet it was one of her toughest, because she had never experienced a normal life. While that is sad, I’m happy she was able to find a safe haven for a time with the Lane family.

The Teacher We All Wished We’d Had: Our Miss Brooks

We kicked off the month looking at the successful transition of Burns and Allen from radio to television.  There were many shows that couldn’t make the leap to the small screen, and several that did very well like The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Our Miss Brooks not only had a successful radio show, but when their television show debuted, the radio show kept going. Many of the cast members starred in both mediums. In addition, they made it to the big screen with a movie and a comic book.

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So, what enabled Our Miss Brooks to do what many shows could not?  Let’s look a little closer at the series and the behind-the-scenes work that kept the show on the air for four seasons, producing 130 episodes.

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Connie Brooks (Eve Arden) is an English teacher at Madison High. She and her principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon), do not always see eye to eye, but she is close to his daughter Harriet and Harriet’s boyfriend Walter (Richard Crenna) who gives Miss Brooks a ride to school. She wants to be close to Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), the science teacher, but he is oblivious to her charms. She rents a room from Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) where she lives with Mrs. Davis’s cat, Minerva.

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We also get to know Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), basically a “dumb jock” who is Walter’s best friend and Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft), another English teacher who is Connie’s love rival for Mr. Boynton.

The show debuted July 19, 1948 on the radio. The show program was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet for its entire run which ended in 1957. The first choice for Miss Brooks was Shirley Booth, and the show was titled “Our Miss Booth.” In Gerald Nachman’s book Raised on Radio, he states Booth concentrated too much on the disadvantages of being a school teacher to be funny. There is an audition with her from April of 1948 and while she sounds pleasant, she doesn’t have the sarcastic wit of Arden. The television show began in 1953 and was sponsored by General Foods.

 

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Our Miss Brooks was a ground-breaking show featuring a single woman (teachers were usually single, and marriage might have ended her career). She was not a scatterbrained female like Lucy or Joan in I Married Joan, and she was not a housewife like June Cleaver or Donna Reed. She was a bright, attractive working woman. Eve remembered her third-grade teacher fondly and tried to give Miss Brooks some of her qualities. Eve was known for her sassy movie roles; one of the things she appreciated about the character of Connie Brooks was that it allowed her to be a warm, fun-loving person who had a self-deprecating side.

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The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with I Love Lucy, as well as a director (William Asher) at times, to save money.

The show was funny because it is based on believable characters. Connie Brooks has a great sense of humor. Many of the plots involve misunderstandings or her trying to keep Walter out of trouble with Mr. Conklin. Here are a few episode summaries.

Miss Davis unknowingly uses school funds to buy Connie a new dress. Now Connie must sell the dress to return the money. Mr. Boynton even models the dress for the kids.

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Mr. Boynton asks Connie to play the role of Mrs. Boynton. She is thrilled,  imagining what it could lead to, until she realizes he meant his mother, not his wife.

Walter is listening to his home-made radio. Storm warnings come over the air for Bombay. Miss Brooks mistakenly thinks it is for their area and takes precautions to evacuate the school and prepare for a hurricane.

Mr. Conklin is furious when his bike is taken at the grocery store, and he wants the thief punished. Miss Brooks finds out that a poor boy borrowed it for his birthday and then returned it to the store. She goes to great lengths to protect the youngster.

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Radio Mirror magazine nominated Eve Arden as the top-ranking comedienne two years in a row for her characterization of Miss Brooks. The National Education Association recognized her for her sympathetic portrayal of teachers.

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Eve Arden was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress Starring in a Regular Series in 1954, 1955, and 1956—winning in 1954. Gale Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1955, and the show was nominated Best Situation Comedy in 1954 and 1955.

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Eve Arden had to fight the same battle many celebrities do when they have a hit show. She handled her fame of being known as Miss Brooks with grace and practicality. As she explained it: “I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. I griped about it a little, and someone said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you had a hit on Broadway, probably 100 or 200,000 people might have seen you in it, if you’d stayed in it long enough. And this way, you’ve been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you’ve been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I’d better shut up while I was ahead.”

 

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While the TV series never resolved the Boynton-Brooks romance, the 1956 film did. It was directed by Al Lewis, who directed many of the television episodes. In the movie, Miss Brooks is unaware that Mr. Boynton is saving money, so he can ask her to marry him. He is hoping to get a promotion to head of the department. In a subplot, Connie is having issues with a student who is failing her class. He has no friends because he is very arrogant. When she meets his wealthy father, she understands why he has no friends and she tries to help him.  Also, Mr. Conklin is running for Coordinator of Education, primarily to stop the other nominee, Superintendent Stone, who has threatened to fire Conklin. Miss Brooks decides to be Conklin’s campaign manager despite her butting heads with him most of the time. If Conklin wins, Mr. Boynton might be promoted to principal. In the end, Boynton finally proposes, only to have a chimpanzee steal away the ring.

 

Our Miss Brooks comic. (1956)

The movie was a box-office failure. After the movie, Dell Comics released a comic book titled “Our Miss Brooks.” In past decades, it sold for hundreds of dollars in mint condition. Today it can be found on ebay for under $50.

A fun fact I learned was that Eve Arden was born Eunice Quedens. When she was encouraged to take a different stage name, she looked over her cosmetic jar labels. She picked “Eve” from “Evening in Paris” and “Arden” from “Elizabeth Arden.”

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While many of the plots for Our Miss Brooks are predictable and not overly creative, it was a innovative sitcom. The scripts were well written, and the humor still works today. I could not find any channels currently broadcasting Our Miss Brooks, but it does appear on Me TV from time to time. The radio shows can be heard on Sirius Radio, channel 148. Of course, there are a variety of DVDs featuring the show. Add it to your list to understand why Eve Arden was so popular with women in the 1950s.

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