Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bridget Redux

The things I learn by reading my blog's statistics! Not only has this little site been visited by people (or at least computers) from all over the world, but it's easy to tell which posts are the most viewed. By popular demand, I hereby present my second tribute to the actress whose birthday greeting last February was not only the most-viewed post of the year, but of my blog's admittedly brief history.

Bridget as Candy Pruitt on Here Come the Brides.

Lucille Ball? Carol Burnett? No, this blog's #1 television actress is Bridget Hanley, known for her roles in the classic TV shows Here Come the Brides and Harper Valley PTA. 

In a 1969 interview with columnist Vernon Scott, Miss Hanley described her own approach to feminine allure. "I refuse to appear in any movie that has a nude scene in it," she said firmly. "I won't even do a role in a bathing suit." The modest, skin-covering costuming of the actresses on Brides "gives a man's imagination something to work with," she declared. "A fully dressed woman has more sex appeal and mystique going for her than one who is romping around in a bikini or lingerie."

Given the number of hits she's received in just a few short months, who are we to argue with her?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Best wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy holiday season! Here's a little reminder of the season, courtesy of Shirley Booth and her Hazel co-star Don DeFore.

Thanks for reading in 2014.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen...Eunice Quedens!

Now here's an Eve Arden movie I'll bet you've never seen. If you do see Song of Love, though, don't look for the name "Eve Arden" in the credits. In this 1929 film, Eve, then primarily a stage actress, made her motion picture debut under her real name, Eunice Quedens. She was cast in the featured role of Mazie LeRoy, the sexy other woman to whom heroine Anna Gibson (played by vaudeville star Belle Baker) loses her man.

Sound engineer (later screenwriter and director) Edward Bernds remembered Eve well enough years later to write, "In her skimpy chorus-girl costume she was truly gorgeous and drew the admiring -- and perhaps even the lustful -- attention of the crew members." The New York Times reviewer also paid young Miss Quedens a compliment (we think) when he wrote that she made the character of Mazie "quite lifelike."

You can learn more about this film, and the entirety of Eve's filmography, in my book Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unexpected Pages

Have I mentioned in this illustrious blog that I am writing my sixth book on show business history for McFarland? Over the past nine years, I have greatly enjoyed the process of researching and writing nonfiction books, and I hope they've done at least a little to pay tribute to the actors and shows they cover. Earlier this year, I signed a contract for book #6, and it's currently about half done.

But in the past few weeks, I've unexpectedly found myself immersed in a completely different type of writing project, one that interrupted my book-in-progress with an urgency that took me by surprise. Before I quite stopped to think about it, I was writing as fervently and eagerly as I have in quite awhile. I'm not quite sure what to make of this new undertaking yet. I'm not even sure that what I've written, in this utterly new (to me) genre, is any good. But it sure makes life interesting these days.

To be continued...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Parish the Thought

If you've read half as much on motion picture and television history as I have over the years, you certainly know the name of author James Robert Parish. He's written so many fine books on show business history that it would be impractical to list them all, and if you added all the books in which other authors used and cited his research, you'd be crushed under the resulting avalanche. That's why I'm happy to see that several of his classic 1970s volumes are newly available in eBook form, as part of a series called "Encore Film Book Classics."

This includes such well-regarded volumes as The Funsters, in which Parish and his co-authors profile a slew of film comedians, The RKO Gals, which introduces you to everyone from Constance Bennett to Lupe Velez, and more. Personally, I treasure my well-worn copy of The Slapstick Queens, and hope it will be reissued as well. Kindle editions of these volumes are amazingly cheap, and well worth the price.

If you haven't yet explored Mr. Parish's books, what are you waiting for? Here's my rule of thumb: If you're browsing a book on classic movies and television, and you can't find Mr. Parish's name in the bibliography, it's probably no good anyway.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Miss Moorehead's Mystique

Agnes Moorehead in The Blue Veil.
Happy birthday to Agnes Moorehead, born December 6, 1900 in Clinton, Massachusetts. Though memorable as Endora in Bewitched, that role was but a small part of a long, versatile career encompassing film, radio, television and a lifelong love for live theater. She was a busy and acclaimed actress for well over 30 years, until the illness that led to her death in 1974.

While many actors embraced publicity, Moorehead tended to be wary of it. In a 1967 Associated Press article, she wrote, "I think an artist should be kept separated to maintain glamor and a kind of mystery. Otherwise it's like having three meals a day. Pretty dull. I don't believe in the girl-next-door image. What the actor has to sell to the public is fantasy, a magic kind of ingredient that should not be analyzed."

At the risk of ignoring Miss Moorehead's advice, I learned a great deal about this fine actress from my friend Lynn Kear's book Agnes Moorehead: A Bio-Bibliography, published in 1992.  You can also see my review of Axel Nissen's more recent volume, The Films of Agnes Moorehead, here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Page After Page of Gift-Giving Goodness!

Speaking of holiday gifts, are you still seeking the perfect one for the movie or TV buff in your life? Look no further than the Holiday Pop Culture Catalog from McFarland. It's chock-full of wonderful, weird, indispensable books on practically every aspect of pop culture, including comics, horror, music, gaming, and more. Who can resist that cover image of Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants? Plus, there's a book that sounds really interesting on page 15...

Happy holidays!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Holiday Gifts, Sitcom Style

Valerie, Cloris, and Mary sharing those beautifully wrapped lids everyone enjoys getting.
There are a few things you have to learn if you want to have a sitcom-approved Christmas celebration. Here the ladies from Mary Tyler Moore illustrate one of my favorite TV tropes -- the quick-to-open gift. Someone figured out a long time ago that it slows down a scene to watch actors rip the wrapping off an entire package, as most of us mere mortals do. So when TV characters give gifts, they take those few extra minutes to wrap the lid separately from the box. That way, everyone can just toss aside that lid, exclaim over the contents of the package, and get on with the story.

In my personal circle of friends and family, I've never seen anyone wrap presents this way. What about you? Is this something that happens only on TV?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

(Mostly) Silent Star

Perhaps this should be a blog entry with only pictures, no words, to honor the memory of Harpo Marx, born (with the given name Adolph) on this date in 1888. His inimitable career in comedy drew almost entirely on his ability to mine laughs from facial expressions, sight gags, pantomime, and other nonverbal expressions. What little his characters had to say was often conveyed with the toot of a horn he carried almost everywhere, although most Marx Brothers movies also made room for at least one musical number performed on the harp that gave this great comedian his stage name.

A popular comedy team on stage and in movies, the Marx Brothers began to go their separate ways professionally in the late 1940s. Though Harpo's comedy was obviously ill-suited to radio, he made occasional television appearances in the 1950s and early 1960s, notably a classic episode of I Love Lucy (above) in which he and Lucille Ball play lookalike versions of his iconic character. He also appeared on episodes of The DuPont Show of the Week, The Martha Raye Show, Candid Camera, and his brother Groucho's popular quiz show You Bet Your Life. In 1961, he proved more eloquent than his comedic characters when he published a fascinating autobiography, Harpo Speaks.

Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964, a few weeks short of his 76th birthday. He was survived by his wife of 28 years, former actress Susan Fleming, as well as by the four children they adopted. You can learn much, much more about this gifted comedian by visiting Harpo's Place, the website created and administered by his son Bill. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

When Rhoda Met Ethel

Valerie Harper and Vivian Vance on Rhoda
Here's a rare opportunity to see, side-by-side, the actresses who played two of classic TV's best known sitcom sidekicks. The picture is from Vivian Vance's 1975 guest appearance on Rhoda. (Adding to the nostalgic ambiance was Vivian's TV husband, played by David White of Bewitched).

As Valerie Harper admitted, "Vivian was an idol of mine and it was wonderful to see her work ... Her talent contributed to the atmosphere to write for a character like Rhoda ... Without Lucy and Ethel, they wouldn't have wanted Mary and Rhoda."

You can read about this classic episode, and Vance's remarkable career, in Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker's book The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance (Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, 1998).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Sterling Occasion


Film and television actor Robert Sterling (November 13, 1917-May 30, 2006) was born on this date, 97 years ago. He and second wife Anne Jeffreys (pictured above) made a glamorous and charismatic couple as the stars of the popular 1950s supernatural sitcom, Topper. After a second, less successful series together -- the short-lived Love That Jill (1958), Robert went solo as the star of the CBS sitcom Ichabod and Me. When that show, too, came a cropper, Sterling was reportedly fed up with show business. At the age of 45, he became a successful businessman, working in the computer industry and marketing a line of golf clubs.

You can read more about Topper in The Women Who Made Television Funny, while Ichabod and Me is the subject of a chapter in Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fifteen Questions About Bewitched

Over at Classic TV Lovers' Haven on Facebook, we recently devoted a week to remembering Bewitched. In honor of the occasion, I posed a series of 15 trivia questions related to the show and its stars. If you'd like to try your hand at them, here they are:

1. Name the Academy Award-winning actress who guest starred as Carlotta, a witch who wanted Sam to marry her nerdy son.

2.  Why was actress Kasey Rogers told to wear a dark wig when she was first cast as Louise Tate?

3. What top-billed star of a 1970s Norman Lear sitcom once played a guest role on Bewitched?

4. What real-life musical duo was chosen by Serena to sing her new song at the Cosmos Cotillion?

5.  Darrin thinks it's Terry Warbell, the pretty daughter of a client, who wants a kiss from him. But who is she really?

6. What famed European landmark was supposedly the result of a faulty spell by Esmeralda?

7.  In 17th century Plymouth, what innocent act almost gets Darrin convicted of practicing witchcraft?

8.  Which actor from the series later starred in a fantasy sitcom called Down to Earth?

9.  What was the name of Samantha's childhood nanny, as played by Hermione Baddeley in a 1967 episode?

10.  What was Serena's pet name for Larry Tate?

11.  Before the name "Samantha" was chosen, what was the character's name in the original pilot script?

12. Name the prolific classic TV actor who played Samantha's obstetrician, Dr. Anton.

13. What's the name of the private detective who discovers that Samantha is a witch?

14. What goes wrong when Aunt Clara babysits Jonathan Tate?

15. Name the 1966 movie in which George Tobias and Alice Pearce play a married couple similar to the Kravitzes.

Post your answers in the "Comments" section if you like. In case you're bothered or bewildered by any questions, I'll provide the complete answer key on Monday (unless someone beats me to it).

Happy twitching!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mr. Chicken and a Cast of Characters

My Halloween night viewing of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was like attending a convention of 1960s character actors. Aside from star Don Knotts, no shabby character man himself, I spotted within the course of 90 minutes such instantly recognizable faces as Reta Shaw (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), playing the chairwoman of an occult society, Sandra Gould (Bewitched) as one of the members, Hope Summers (The Andy Griffith Show) as the hysterical witness to a supposed murder, and Hal Smith (also The Andy Griffith Show) as the victim who didn't stay dead long.
Charles Lane questions Ellen Corby, as George Chandler looks on.
In the courtroom scene alone was a plethora of beloved actors. The judge was George Chandler (Lassie, Ichabod and Me), the bailiff was Cliff Norton (It's About Time), the witness was Ellen Corby (The Waltons), and the prosecuting attorney was Charles Lane, who was in -- well, pretty much everything. Want more? Among the courtoom spectators were Lurene Tuttle, Jesslyn Fax, Nydia Westman, and plaintiff Phil Ober. Elsewhere in the film I spotted J. Edward McKinley, Dick Wilson, Hope Summers, Herbie Faye...

Kind of made me wonder who played all the character roles on TV while this film was in production. To be honest, I didn't find the movie as funny as I did when I first saw it some years ago. But it would be hard to find one that better illustrates the color and interest that good character players can bring to the table.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Feline Occasion

Happy National Cat Day from Samantha Stephens and all the other feline fanciers of classic TV and movies! Remember Minerva, Mrs. Davis' cat from Our Miss Brooks?

Friday, October 24, 2014

And Now a Word from...Vivian Vance?

Practically since the beginning of television, advertisers have been looking for ways to make sure consumers watch their commercials. In the 1970s and 1980s, one favorite way was to hire a celebrity whom viewers liked to deliver the message.

At right is Vivian Vance, beloved as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, pitching coffee. Below is movie and TV veteran Martha Raye as a spokesperson for a denture cleanser. They're just two of the classic TV performers who landed ongoing endorsement deals. Such a deal could be quite lucrative, well into six figures per year, without requiring a lot of an actor's time.

"Celebrity broker" Jon Albert explained in 1986, "As the price of network commercials keeps going up and up, there has to be a tremendous amount of effectiveness in a short time ... Viewers tend to become aware of celebrity commercials a lot quicker than non-celebrity commercials. By capitalizing on the performer's celebrity you can give the product some celebrity."

Did this work for you? Did you buy products because they were endorsed by a celebrity?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Where Authors and Readers Meet

Big thanks to author James Zeruk, Jr., who created this banner for his busy Facebook page Hollywood Book Chat, of which I am a member. The page, which now boasts more than 2,000 members, was created to cater to readers who enjoy books about show business history. The group also has numerous authors among its membership, and James was nice enough to include me and my newest book in this visual assortment.

I'm in pretty good company here, wouldn't you say?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Remembering Beverly Garland

In honor of Beverly Garland's birthday, here's a photo of her with one of her typical movie leading men, in Roger Corman's It Conquered the World:
After a career like that, you can imagine that marrying Fred MacMurray on TV's My Three Sons was a welcome change. Interviewed shortly after she joined the show in 1969, Garland said she enjoyed her new role, noting, "With a few happy exceptions, I've played mostly screamers, neurotics and just about every other kind of oddball you can imagine."
Born on October 17, 1926, Beverly had a long and successful career that lasted for more than forty years. Although she passed away in 2008, she's still fondly remembered by her many fans, whether they know her as Officer Casey Jones of TV's Decoy, Bing Crosby's wife from his 1964-65 ABC sitcom, Kate Jackson's mom on Scarecrow and Mrs. King -- or that unfortunate lady who found herself married to one of The Alligator People.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Retro Research

I'm in the throes of researching a new book, so I went to the Emory University library yesterday. Since I expected to make lots of notes, I took along my new tablet. (Never let it be said that I'm against taking advantage of useful technology).

For those of you who like to know all the glamorous details of a writer's life, my tablet looks something like this:

Why, what kind of tablet did you think I meant?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Irene Ryan: Stardom at 60

That's Granny?! Irene Ryan away from the cameras.
She was a major television star of the 1960s, but even her most ardent fans might not have recognized her out of costume. Irene Ryan, pictured at left, played "Granny" Daisy Moses on The Beverly Hillbillies from 1962 to 1971. Nearly sixty when she was cast in the popular sitcom, Ryan already had a long entertainment career behind her, but nothing had brought her the attention and acclaim that Hillbillies did when it became one of television's Top Ten shows during its first season.

However, she nearly missed out on the chance to play Granny. According to an interview she gave the Associated Press' Bob Thomas a few months after the show's premiere, both the casting director and creator/producer Paul Henning thought Ryan was too young for the role. "Look, Paul, do I have to go home and get my grey wig and shawl to convince you I can play Granny?" she remembered telling the latter. "If you get anybody older than me to play the role, she won't be able to stand the pace. I know what those 7-to-7 schedules are like." Henning was reportedly close to choosing Bea Benaderet for the part, but was finally convinced that the role was tailor-made for Ryan.

Nine years of playing Granny left Ryan a wealthy woman. Rather than living high on the hog herself, though, she created a foundation that endowed scholarships for acting students. The Irene Ryan Foundation still exists today, and has provided a helping hand to numerous aspiring actors. After the cancellation of Hillbillies in 1971, Ryan made a successful return to the stage, winning a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the Broadway hit Pippin. Sadly, she suffered a stroke that forced her to drop out of the show, and passed away in 1973. As long as there are reruns of her popular series, however, new viewers will go on discovering this gifted comedic actress.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Mrs. G Has a Birthday

Happy birthday to the late, great Gertrude Berg (1898-1966), the pioneering star and creator of the long-running radio and TV hit, The Goldbergs. Here she's pictured with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, her leading man in the successful Broadway play A Majority of One. They worked so well together that, when Berg returned to weekly television in 1961 with Mrs. G Goes to College, she insisted on having Hardwicke as her co-star. In that series, rather than her signature character of Molly Goldberg, she played a not-dissimilar widow, Sarah Green, who pursued a college degree later in life, with Hardwicke as her professor.

Although Mrs. G Goes to College (retitled The Gertrude Berg Show at midseason) wasn't a ratings winner, it earned Berg an Emmy nomination. I researched the show a few years ago for my book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television, and thought it was a neglected gem that should be rediscovered. Give it a look and let me know if you agree.

Monday, September 29, 2014

An Easier Way To See the World

Playing the entertainment director on a cruise ship traveling far and wide should be a good chance for an actress to see the world. In the 1950s, however, the leading lady of The Gale Storm Show found that the world came to her instead of the other way around.

Aboard the S.S. Ocean Queen: Gale Storm and Jimmy Fairfax.
Nowadays, an audience might expect to see genuine location footage of those exotic locations to which Susanna Pomeroy and the S.S. Ocean Queen traveled. But for purposes of Storm's 1956-60 sitcom, the effect was created almost entirely on studio soundstages. In a widely syndicated article that appeared under Gale's byline in 1959, she wrote, "I'm getting the greatest vicarious geography lesson of all times. The sets those studio workers build are as close to the authentic thing as you'll find. I feel I've tiptoed through the Taj Mahal and scaled the Alps, without ever having to leave home. We got to do a highland fling in a Scottish castle and a Bali dance in a tropical paradise." The illusion was good enough to keep viewers entertained for four seasons in prime time, and years of reruns afterwards. You can read more about Gale's career as the star of two long-running sitcoms (this one and its predecessor, My Little Margie), in my book The Women Who Made Television Funny

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Joan Davis, Radio Star

Though many know her primarily for her film or television work, Joan Davis was also a major radio star in the 1940s. One of my goals in writing about her was to better document her work on popular shows such as The Sealtest Village Store, The Joan Davis Show, and Leave It to Joan. To do so was one of the biggest challenges in researching and writing the book, which is why I was especially pleased by a review in the August newsletter of the Radio Collectors of America.

Leave It to Joan, with Joseph Kearns.
According to reviewer Bob Jennings, Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy "offers the best and certainly the most complete examination of Joan Davis' radio career ever assembled ... he has connected almost all the radio programs Joan Davis did, including all of her guest appearances, with plots, cast, and background information that reveals some of [the] turmoil and pressure that creating those shows caused." In conclusion, he notes, "This is a good book. It is well worth the asking price, and it's a reference book anyone who has an interest in the life and career of Joan Davis will find invaluable..."

Since only a small percentage of Joan Davis' radio comedy is currently in circulation among Old Time Radio collectors. I can't help agreeing with Mr. Jennings when he writes, "Perhaps it is not being too optimistic to believe that treasure troves of Joan Davis' original radio shows may yet surface." Here's hoping!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Say, Aren't You..."

Here's a face you probably never expected to see on I Married Joan. Bing Crosby makes a cameo appearance in the closing scene of "Opera," a first-season episode which aired on February 25, 1953. Der Bingle plays a new neighbor who drops by, though he firmly insists he's not...you know. At this juncture, General Electric was sponsoring both I Married Joan and Crosby's CBS radio show, explaining the unexpected walk-on.

Joan and Bing also appeared in print ads for their sponsor, as you can see below:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where Reruns Live Forever

A few weeks ago, I accepted an invitation to become an administrator on a Facebook page called Classic TV Lovers' Haven. Founded by classic TV buff Cassandra Majors, the group currently boasts more than 9,000 members, and is becoming the go-to place on Facebook for those who love the television favorites of the 1950s through the 1970s.
The group has a new theme each week; currently; we're observing "Emmy Winners Week," commemorating those honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their work, and in a few cases those who weren't. But we're always happy to discuss any favorite shows, pose trivia questions, and often just say, "Who remembers this?"

If that sounds like fun, feel free to check us out at the link above. There's also a popular sister site called Classic Film Lovers' Haven. Be sure to say hello if you're in the neighborhood.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Remembering Reta

If you don't recognize her face, I have to question whether you watched much classic TV. Reta Shaw, born on this date in 1912, is one of those consummate character actresses who seemed to turn up in almost every show at one time or another. Here are two of her guest appearances that immediately come to mind:

Above, on the first-season Lost in Space episode "Return from Outer Space" (originally aired December 29, 1965), she was kindly Clara Simms, who took in young space traveler Will Robinson when he unexpectedly landed back on Earth. On I Dream of Jeannie's "Jeannie and the Wild Pipchicks" (September 23, 1968), pictured below, she was stuffy military officer Colonel Finch, who proved surprisingly willing to shed her inhibitions after a taste of some magical candy.
She may be best known for her two-year run as housekeeper Martha Grant on the 1968-70 sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. When I was researching Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television, I had the chance to see her as another sitcom domestic, in the short-lived CBS comedy Ichabod and Me.

For Shaw, who once thought she wanted to have a career as a missionary, her acting work gave her -- and viewers -- a different kind of satisfaction. "People love to laugh," she said in a 1968 interview. "They love to be entertained. If I can bring a laugh, or please someone, I have accomplished something. It's different from feeding souls in one way, but it's feeding them in another way."

Though Reta Shaw passed away in 1982, she left behind a gallery of wonderful performances, and this blog entry has only scratched the surface. Suffice it to say she accomplished her goal of entertaining people more than she may ever have realized.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Main Street Blues

Almost any classic TV watcher will remember actor Robert Young as Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best, or for his starring role in Marcus Welby, M.D. But how many know that, in between those two iconic roles, he spent a year starring in a CBS series called Window on Main Street?

Young and his producing partner, Eugene B. Rodney, shut down Father Knows Best while it was still popular, and the show's many years of success had paid off for both. But after a year or so of early retirement, Young was bored, and agreed to do another weekly series. Window on Main Street, which debuted in 1961, mixed drama and comedy, casting the star as a celebrated writer returning to his hometown after many years' absence. The show was designed to be an anthology, telling the stories of many different residents of the town of Millsburg through the eyes of Young's character. "This character is certainly no father image," Young told journalist Cynthia Lowry at the time of its debut, "so there can be no confusion between the old role and the new one. If you want to tie the two together, I suppose you might say that we're making the whole town of Millsburg my family."

Somewhere between concept and execution, however, Young and Rodney's new project went awry. Audiences didn't take to the show, which lasted only one year. Looking back some years later, Young said the show had him playing "a male Mary Worth ... in each episode I stuck my nose into somebody else's business ... it lasted one season and I was delighted when it was canceled." Being burned by that experience, Young would do little acting after its cancellation, until 1969, when he was cast as Marcus Welby, the doctor viewers everywhere wished they could consult.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

50 Years of Samantha, Herman Munster, and Gomer Pyle

It's a big year for classic TV anniversaries. The fall 1964 prime time schedule brought forth seven new shows that would quickly become audience favorites, enjoy healthy runs on the network schedule, and be seen in reruns for years afterward.

Among the shows being commemorated for 50 years as TV favorites are The Addams Family, Bewitched, Flipper, Gomer Pyle -- U.S.M.C., The Munsters, Peyton Place, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Of these shows, three of them -- Bewitched, Gomer Pyle, and Peyton Place -- would rank among the year's Top Ten hits during their freshman seasons.

Which of these shows meant to the most to you as a kid, or still entertains you today?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Award-Winning Birthday Girl

Happy birthday to the one and only Shirley Booth, born August 30, 1898. With a career that lasted more than 50 years, and the proud possessor of an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, and two Emmy Awards, she may still be best-remembered as the goodhearted, busybody maid of TV's Hazel. 

Surprisingly, she was never the subject of a full-length biography until I published Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record in 2008. It was a privilege to spend more than a year researching her impressive career, and talking to colleagues like actresses Joyce Van Patten and Elizabeth Wilson, television producer Saul Turteltaub, and child actor Pat Cardi (Jeff Williams on Hazel), among others. All were happy to share their memories of this legendary leading lady of the American theater, and shed light on both the actress and the woman they knew off-stage.

Though her Oscar-winning performance in Come Back, Little Sheba is still a classic, I'm also quite fond of her lesser-known star turn in About Mrs. Leslie, opposite Robert Ryan. Her film performances are few in number, since she focused largely on her stage career, but those that endure are well worth your time to seek out and enjoy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mr. B's Birthday

Happy birthday to film and television star Don DeFore, born 101 years ago today, on August 25, 1913. Perhaps best-remembered as George Baxter, alleged boss of TV's Hazel, DeFore also had a recurring role in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950s, and before that a thriving movie career.

DeFore is looking aghast (again) at Hazel (Shirley Booth).
As everyone including its top-billed star readily acknowledged, DeFore was an integral element in Hazel's success. "I admit it was pretty strange at first," he said during the show's run. "Here was Shirley Booth, the great and Oscar-winning Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), as Hazel, and here I was shouting at her in the role of her boss. This Baxter is quite a guy. At the office he's a lawyer, successful, logical. Then every night he comes home to Hazel, the most illogical thing he ever ran into. Total frustration!" DeFore played that frustration beautifully, giving Hazel a worthy adversary yet never letting his character become unlikable or unkind. A family man himself, DeFore worked long and hard to take care of his wife and five children.

But to focus only on Hazel would be overlooking DeFore's accomplishments as an actor in dozens of feature films. One of my favorites is the holiday-themed It Happened on 5th Avenue. If you haven't seen it, and you'd like to celebrate Christmas with a warm, endearing movie, put it on your to-view list this year. Other film credits include Romance on the High Seas, A Guy Named Joe, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Mr. DeFore died in 1993, at the age of eighty, but is still fondly remembered by many fans, as seen in such Facebook groups as The Don DeFore Fan Club.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

That's a Wrap!

Well, I hate this. Film historian Leonard Maltin announced this week that the 2015 edition of his annual movie guide will be the last one published. Apparently those of us who consult his smart, authoritative, and comprehensive guidebook are dwindling in number, as more and more moviegoers get their information from the web. (Maybe a blog isn't the perfect place to complain about this...)

Even before I considered writing books on film and television history, I loved reading them. While I don't always agree with Maltin's opinions, I respect his expertise, and have learned a lot from his books. Whether it's a BOMB or a ****, he always has something worthwhile to say. Who else could have reviewed the low-budget 1967 chiller Castle of Evil and said, "Producers should have taken the film's production costs and bought a candy bar instead"? And I'll never forget his cogent, tongue-in-cheek advice concerning 1965's The Navy vs. the Night Monsters:

1) Look at the title. 2) Examine the cast. 3) Be aware that the plot involves omnivorous trees. 4) Don't say you weren't warned.

Luckily for those of us who love the films of an earlier era, Maltin's separate guide to vintage movies will continue to appear occasionally. Otherwise, I'd really be in a state of mourning.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rose Marie's August Occasion

Happy birthday to Rose Marie Mazetta Guy, better known to her many fans as simply "Rose Marie." She was born 91 years ago today.

Fondly remembered for her Emmy-nominated turn as wisecracking comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she has entertained audiences since she was a child. As Baby Rose Marie, she was singing on NBC radio at the age of five. Her adulthood found her performing on Broadway, in nightclubs, and on many television shows. She had a regular role on The Doris Day Show, and was a frequent celebrity guest on The Hollywood Squares.

If you haven't already done so, you should read her entertaining and surprisingly moving autobiography Hold the Roses, published in 2002 by the University Press of Kentucky. Even though Sally Rogers was never very lucky in love, Rose Marie was, and you'll enjoy learning about her happy marriage to musician Bobby Guy, cut short by his premature death in 1964. She also offers great stories about the many famous entertainers she's known, including the one she discovered at a Cleveland TV station in the early 1960s. 

To commemorate her big day, visit her official website, or hit YouTube for this clip of a classic musical number she performed on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

TV Lessons

It's that time of year when I'm glad I'm old enough that I don't have to go back to school. Remember that "uh-oh" feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realized summer vacation was almost over, and it was time to return to the classroom? But if I had to be in school this fall, I wouldn't mind being enrolled with one of these beloved TV teachers.

My #1 choice would be English instructor Constance (Connie) Brooks, as played by Eve Arden, from the hit radio and early TV sitcom Our Miss Brooks. Although Miss Brooks was Madison High's best-loved English teacher, here she seems to be getting an impromptu geography lesson from fellow faculty member Mr. Philip Boynton, as played by Robert Rockwell. Between radio and TV, Miss Brooks' class was in session for 8 years.
I also enjoyed visiting the video classrooms of Walt Whitman High, as seen in ABC's comedy-drama Room 222. Did you know there was a Room 222 comic book? I didn't, but here it is, with stars (left to right) Lloyd Haynes, Karen Valentine, and Michael Constantine pictured. This series, which ran from 1969 to 1974, had what I think is one of the most beautiful musical themes of any weekly show, composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith. If you don't know it, you can check it out here. This was also a trendsetting show for its day, with its relaxed presentation of a culturally diverse student body and faculty.

Who was your favorite TV teacher?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lucy at 103

Would we forget Lucille Ball's birthday around here? Well, of course not! So put on one of Mrs. Trumbull's party hats and light a candle in honor of this iconic comedy star, born August 6, 1911. Because if you don't, she'll be forced to join the Friends of the Friendless, and won't you feel guilty?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Man Who Didn't Love "Lucy"

The late John Crosby (1912-1991) was widely considered one of the most knowledgeable and respected TV critics, his newspaper column syndicated nationwide in the 1950s and beyond. His name came up often as I researched five books about show business history. So I was interested by his November 2, 1951 column, in which he expressed a less-than-delighted reaction to a new CBS television series called I Love Lucy.

Lucy gets some marital advice in "Be a Pal."
Lucy had aired only three episodes ("The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub", "Be a Pal", and "The Diet") when Crosby called Lucille Ball's now-classic series "a terrible waste of her talents and her husband's." In Crosby's view, the show was typical of much Hollywood output in the early days of TV, drawing on shopworn ideas about married life carried over from radio: "The endless cliches into which these people are thrust, and what I'm afraid is the spirit of contempt or, at very least indifference, toward television which seems to imbue the actors, robs them of a great deal of their personality and of their appeal." While acknowledging that the show was "very competently put together" and "written almost too professionally," Crosby found it an inferior offering.

Happily for Lucy lovers, Crosby did come around somewhat; a year or so later, he wrote, "At its best, the show has some of the manic informality and improvisation of the early silent film comedies." Of its star, he said with unqualified admiration, "She's a really great clown." And if, overall, he still wasn't the show's most uncritical fan, he wrote with a certain air of resignation, "Who am I to argue with 12,000,000 families?"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TV Flashback: Frat Boy Fracas

Remember this one? We've talked before about network executives' fondness for shows based on hit movies. One of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon came in 1979, following the unexpected box office success of National Lampoon's Animal House. ABC's Delta House, pictured above, was the authorized TV adaptation. But, lo and behold, NBC and CBS, too, greenlighted sitcoms centered on college hijinks. Brothers and Sisters (not to be confused with the later show starring Sally Field) was NBC's entry in the race, centering on the Greek life at Krandall College. It premiered in January 1979, and was a dead duck by April. CBS' Co-Ed Fever fared even worse. Its first "preview" showing, on Sunday, February 4, 1979, drew such low ratings that the network pulled the plug immediately, not even airing the other five episodes that were shot.

As for Delta House, it suffered from at least two disadvantages in its quest for TV success. As seen in this ad, the ensemble cast mostly lacked the name performers from the film, including Saturday Night Live's John Belushi. Aired in an early evening time slot, it didn't enjoy the freedom to include the type of raunchy humor that fueled the movie. Thirteen episodes aired between January and April 1979, but after that, the boys of Faber College once again flunked out.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spaceman's Birthday

Happy birthday to Mark Goddard, born July 24, 1936 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Baby Boomer TV fans know him best as Major Don West from Lost in Space, but he also played recurring roles in Robert Taylor's ABC series The Detectives, and in the short-lived sitcom Many Happy Returns (CBS, 1964-65). As an actor, Mark didn't necessarily benefit from the changes that happened on Lost in Space in its second and third seasons, as the writers increasingly focused on Will Robinson, Dr. Zachary Smith, and the Robot. However, he continued to remain a fan favorite. After the show was canceled in 1968, he found it difficult to get acting jobs. Not until the 1980s did he enjoy a resurgence, when he landed contract roles on two popular daytime soap operas, One Life to Live and General Hospital, before going on to a new career as a teacher. 

Interviewed by syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner in 1985, Mark admitted he had once been ashamed of his association with Lost in Space: "But that was wrong of me. It was very popular with kids, and they loved it. [They] grew up with that show for three very important years in their lives. They all know me as Maj. Don West. That's a good feeling." Today, he meets those fans at nostalgia conventions, and through his website. He's also the author of a memoir, To Space and Back. 

Many happy returns, Mark!  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lunchtime Vittles with the Clampetts

Many Baby Boomers will remember the classic lunchboxes of the 1960s, with artwork representing some of TV's most popular shows. Here we have the cast of The Beverly Hillbillies, but you could probably find a box for almost any show you liked. Many of these items, in good condition, go for big bucks on eBay or other online stores. But you might also pick one up at a flea market or garage sale.

Mine from elementary school showed Charles Schulz's Snoopy. Did you have one?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dr. Horwich's Video Nursery School

Happy birthday to Frances Horwich (July 16, 1907 - July 22, 2001), the professor of education who unexpectedly became an early TV star hosting the popular kids' show Ding Dong School. Seen five days a week on NBC-TV from 1952 to 1956, Dr. Horwich's "nursery school of the air" was one of the first shows to demonstrate television's capacity for teaching the young. After leaving the network, Ding Dong School continued in syndication until the mid-1960s, and was widely viewed by the Baby Boomer generation.

Committed to her beliefs as an educator, Dr. Horwich didn't abandon her principles when she went on television -- she vetoed sponsors whose products she thought shouldn't be peddled to her audience, and resisted efforts to make her gentle, low-key show splashier or more frivolous. When NBC executives wanted to expand her show to an hour, she balked; she thought 30 minutes was enough time in front of the set. Asked in 1954 how television impacted children, she said, "I am torn between my background as an educator and my current status as a network performer. But I do feel that television should not interfere with outdoor play, nor should it function as a baby sitter." 

If you've never seen Ding Dong School, you can visit Dr. Horwich's video classroom here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Authors on the Loose

We're ba-ack! My fellow author Peggy Vonsherie Allen and I will reprise our program, "So You Want to Write a Book," next Tuesday, July 15 at 7 p.m., at the DeKalb County Public Library's Toco Hill branch.
We'll be talking about the many steps, stumbles, and dilemmas of getting a book published in the 21st century. You might also hear a little bit about Joan Davis, and about Peggy's experiences growing up in Alabama as the daughter of a sharecropper. The program is sponsored by the Friends of the Toco Hill Library; Ms. Allen's books and mine will be available for purchase and signing after the talk.

Come by and see us!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

It's Poppo's Birthday

Happy birthday to one of classic TV's most familiar faces: actor William Schallert. Born July 6, 1922, Schallert has a list of film and television credits that could fill this entire entry. Suffice it to say that, whether you remember him as high school teacher Leander Pomfritt on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Carson Drew on The Nancy Drew Mysteries, or his beloved role as "Poppo" on The Patty Duke Show, he's left his mark as an actor. Star Trek fans know him for his role in the classic "Trouble with Tribbles" episode, just one of his countless guest appearances. Behind the scenes, he worked extensively with the Screen Actors' Guild, serving as president from 1979 to 1981.

Many of his career memories were captured in a wide-ranging interview he gave to the Archive of American Television in 2012. He also has an official website containing a wonderful array of photos and memorabilia. Happy birthday, Mr. Schallert, and thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Teen Sleuths Investigate Prime Time TV

When ABC debuted The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in January 1977, I was at the upper end of the 10-to-14 age bracket at which the books were supposedly aimed. But having followed the adventures of the Hardys for much of my childhood, I was curious to see how this new series would portray them.

The format called for a "Hardy Boys" segment, starring Shaun Cassidy as Joe and Parker Stevenson as Frank, to alternate with a "Nancy Drew" segment, in which Pamela Sue Martin took the lead. (Every fifth week would be devoted to that classic bit of TV kitsch, The Brady Bunch Hour.) Arlene Sidaris, who produced the show with Joyce Brotman, explained to journalist Joan Hanauer on the eve of its debut, "We grew up on Nancy Drew. It was probably my first reading. Nancy Drew just brought back memories of this terrific girl who got into all of these wonderfully exciting situations and fought herself out of them."

From the outset, the series' 7 p.m. Sunday time slot meant formidable competition for family viewership from NBC's long-running The Wonderful World of Disney. According to Sidaris, producers and executives hoped to attract a broad audience to the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew shows. "We think the kids who are reading the books now will watch, that the format is fun and exciting for younger children and that the older members of the family will be attracted by nostalgia. Certainly they'll view the first shows to see what we've done, and we hope they'll be entertained by them."

The show performed well enough at the outset to be renewed for a second season, but didn't achieve lasting popularity. Ratings for the Hardy Boys segments benefited from Shaun Cassidy's following as a pop singer, but by late 1977 the separate Nancy Drew segments were dropped (with Nancy folded into the boys' adventures), and the show was ultimately canceled in 1979. The books, however, are still being read by kids today, though in modified form from what we Baby Boomers loved.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Professor Joan

Joan Davis the intellectual? Who'd have thought it? Certainly not fans of her 1940s radio shows, nor most of her movies at Fox. But Joan showed her versatility in the 1946 Universal comedy She Wrote the Book. In early scenes, she plays shy mathematics professor Jane Featherstone, faculty member of a small college. But throw in a train trip, and an unexpected knock on the head, and soon Jane is mistaken for Lulu Winters, author of the scandalous bestseller Always Lulu. What happens after that makes for one of Joan's best comedy films, one that has yet to have a proper DVD release.

Off-screen, of course, Joan was an extremely intelligent woman who made the most of her hard-earned talent as a comedienne, and successfully operated her own corporation, Joan Davis Enterprises. Want to know more about that? Well, here's my suggestion. Amazing what you can find in books these days, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It Happens Every June

On the cover of TV Guide.
Happy birthday to actress June Lockhart, who has not one, not two, but three fondly remembered series roles in classic TV. Born June 25, 1925, the daughter of actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, June worked successfully in films, theater, and early TV, coming to prominence in 1958 as mom Ruth Martin on Lassie. After six years in that role, she was signed to co-star in CBS' Lost in Space. Still a cult favorite, LIS (as fans call it) didn't always use June to the fullest extent, as other characters, notably Dr. Smith, Will Robinson, and the Robot came to the fore from Season 2 onward. Nonetheless, the show kept her employed for three years. In 1968, she joined the cast of Petticoat Junction, with her character, Dr. Janet Craig, filling some of the void left by the untimely death of series star Bea Benaderet. Along the way, she racked up guest appearances in many other classic TV favorites -- Bewitched, Adam-12, Perry Mason, and Family Affair, just to name a few. 

Interviewed by author Tom Weaver in the 1990s, Lockhart said of her long career, "I never had a desire to be famous, I never had that driving force -- gotta act! gotta get out there! It has just unfolded so naturally in my life." Classic TV fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Being "Famous Enough" Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Call it a cautionary tale. You might think that being Diane McBain in 1960s Hollywood would be great fun. The beautiful blonde leading lady of TV's Surfside Six, where she kept company with three handsome co-stars, McBain also won roles in high-profile movies like Ice Palace and Parrish, and to many observers seemed well on her way to major stardom.

But the newly released Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir, by McBain and Michael Gregg Michaud (BearManor Media, $29.95) paints a different picture of life as a starlet, with a starting pay of $250 a week. Off the set, she was involved with men who often treated her poorly, and was insecure about her talent and the progress of her career. Soon, her chance at top stardom having passed her by, she was reduced to roles in AIP drive-in quickies like The Mini-Skirt Mob. The years ahead would bring unemployment, a troubled marriage, and in the 1980s a vicious sexual assault that left her physically and mentally battered.

The raw material of McBain's life is dramatic, and she wisely enlisted Michaud, author of an excellent biography of Sal Mineo, to capture it in a readable, well-organized form. Though many of her stories are sad -- her fans may find it painful to read the remarkably candid account of her rape -- the book is also wise, and at times quite funny. Writing about Parrish, in which actress Claudette Colbert watched the inexperienced McBain fumble a complicated scene, she says, "Throughout this painful ordeal, Miss Colbert didn't say a word, but if looks could kill, I would have been buried in a tobacco field outside Hartford, Connecticut." Mincing no words, McBain bluntly describes one of her co-stars as "insufferable," and says of working with a mainly female cast (including Joan Crawford) in The Caretakers, "At times, the nonsense degenerated into ugly bitch fights. I half expected to find clumps of hair on the floor of the set." Also interesting are her accounts of entertaining troops in Vietnam, her work as an advocate for rape survivors, and a stint in the world of daytime TV.

As the above suggests, Diane McBain has one hell of a story to tell. With the help of co-author Michaud, she does it justice, in a book that merits a wide audience.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Happy Birthday, Margie!

In the heyday of classic TV, the month of June was usually marked by the arrival of summer replacement shows. Many would run a few weeks between June and August, never to be seen again. But others developed into popular hits that found a home on the regular year-round schedule.

One of my favorite summer replacement shows was My Little Margie, starring Gale Storm and Charles Farrell, which premiered (get ready!) 62 years ago today, on June 16, 1952. Critical response to the show was mixed, not helped by the fact that it was CBS' summer replacement for I Love Lucy. Lucy's first, groundbreaking season, when it became TV's top-rated show, set the bar high for whatever took its place, even temporarily. But if critics weren't enamored, viewers were. As Miss Storm herself would later say of her show, "Nobody likes it but the people." Given its popularity, the show had no difficulty lining up a sponsor for fall; it ultimately ran for three years, and produced 126 episodes. Once My Little Margie had run its course, Gale Storm returned to TV in 1956 for The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!, which lasted from 1956 to 1960.

Some years ago, when I was writing The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars from 1950s Sitcoms, I had the privilege of doing two telephone interviews with Miss Storm. She was lively, funny, and generous with her time. It was easy to see how she had charmed movie, television, and theater audiences over the course of her long career -- as she still does today, whenever we have the chance to enjoy her work.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What I'd Be Watching

On Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, people often celebrate "Throwback Thursday," in which they post pictures, memories, or comments that take a nostalgic look backward. When it comes to television, I often wish I could throw back some of the inane reality shows of today, in favor of some of my favorite Thursday night classics. 

Marx and George Fenneman.
Thursdays were always a good night for comedy -- if you worked a 9 to 5 job, you were probably coming into the homestretch of a long week, and could use a good laugh. For much of the 1950s, NBC "and your DeSoto-Plymouth dealers" had you covered with Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life. Although the contestants did compete for prize money, the real appeal here was Groucho's trademark wit, and his wry exchanges with the quirky people who turned up each week. Who else would interview a tree surgeon and ask, "Tell me, have you ever fallen out of a patient?"

In the 1960s, Screen Gems (later to be known as Columbia Pictures Television) was one of the world's most successful sitcom factories, and gave birth to two Thursday-night favorites. Hazel, seen on NBC, was a warm, gentle show about the suburban Baxter family, whose lives were completely dominated by their maid. The lead character, who always knew what was best for everyone, could have been hard to take if she hadn't been played by the Oscar, Tony, and Emmy-winning Shirley Booth, who made her endearing even when she was in the midst of driving the Baxters nuts.

And what Baby Boomer kid didn't look forward to Thursday nights to see Samantha Stephens twitch up a good time on ABC's Bewitched? I don't know about you, but the only thing better than having Hazel clean up my messy house would be developing my own magic powers, like the beautiful witch of Morning Glory Circle. I've been hoping for those powers for years, and I haven't given up yet.

What were your Thursday night classic TV favorites?