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.
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.
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 starred as Lily Ruskin, a lively widow who was looking for the right man.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ReedShow, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: TheGertrude 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.