Saturday, May 23, 2015

Happy Birthday, Doll!

Actress Edna Skinner, born on this date in 1921, is probably best-known for playing Kay Addison, wry wife to her "doll" Roger on TV's Mister Ed. But those who enjoyed her work on that show may not realize that she also appeared in the original Broadway company of Oklahoma! (replacing Celeste Holm as Ado Annie), played Maggie, the cook, on Topper, and had a featured role in the classic film Friendly Persuasion.

The death of her co-star Larry Keating in 1963 eventually led to Skinner being written out of Mister Ed during her fourth year with the series. Though Kay Addison's recreational sport of choice seemed to be shopping, Skinner was cut from a different cloth. Retiring from acting at mid-life, Skinner reinvented herself as an expert on fly fishing, her hobby for many years. She and sister Ann (a former model) became regular contributors to Western Outdoors magazine, and were employed as experts in the field by sporting goods manufacturers.

Skinner died at home in North Bend, Oregon on August 8, 2003, at the age of 82. Though Mister Ed lasted until 1966, there seemed to be something missing from this classic show once the sophisticated sparring partners Kay and Roger Addison were no longer to be found next door.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Bewitched" Book Casts Its Spell

It's not every vintage TV show for which I'd read an oversized, 600-page episode guide, that's for sure. But I happily did so in the case of Adam-Michael James' The Bewitched Continuum: The Ultimate Linear Guide to the Classic TV Series (Bright Horse Publishing, $29.95). As the author's introduction makes clear, this is not a book to consult for behind-the-scenes stories, or production histories. The focus is purely on the episodes themselves -- what's good, what's not so good, and how each one contributes to the show's legacy.

Several fun appendices crunch the numbers on various Bewitched tropes -- how many times Larry Tate actually fired Darrin, or threatened to, as well as the complete list of animals or objects Darrin was turned into over eight seasons. There's even a handy list of McMann & Tate clients and their products, and medical records for all the curious maladies and ailments suffered by Samantha, her family and friends.

I could (and will!) argue the author's list of ten Best and Worst episodes; I'd move at least one of his choices from one column to the other. But that's just part of the fun in such a book. Maybe we can debate it sometime in one of Darrin's favorite bars, with Dick Wilson slurring his comments as we go.

Whether you're watching Bewitched for the first time, or the umpteenth, this book is a lot of fun.

NOTE: I was provided a review copy in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

As the TV World Turns

Here's a fun little artifact I acquired recently, courtesy of eBay -- the October 1955 issue of a television fan magazine. On the cover are Liberace ("man of a million talents"), Fess Parker, then playing Davy Crockett in a serial on ABC's Disneyland, and comedians Groucho Marx (You Bet Your Life) and Martha Raye (The Martha Raye Show). 

I enjoyed seeing the photos and stories about some of the most popular performers in the mid-fifties. There's a layout featuring husband and wife Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, of Topper fame, showing off their baby son Jeffreys Sterling. Of course, some of the articles remind us that the information imparted in these publications often needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or twelve. A profile of Betty White declares, "Betty Ought to Get Married!" -- glossing over the fact that the clean-cut star was in fact a two-time divorcee. TV World also assures us that actress Jean Hagen (Make Room for Daddy) "loves co-star Danny [Thomas] as a dear friend," and that "being a TV mom comes second nature" to her. In reality, a frustrated Hagen would quit the show only a few months later, forcing the writers to make Thomas' character a widower the following season. Thomas would admit years later in his autobiography that their working relationship was often bumpy.

If readers didn't think they were getting their 25 cents worth from TV World, they could always venture down the darker alleys of magazines like the infamous Confidential, whose articles that year were more along the lines of "Rory Calhoun -- But for the Grace of God, Still a Convict!" Me, I think I'll stick with Betty White and her quest to find the man who can give her "that tingle that means Mama had better be shopping for wedding announcements."

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Julia's Day

In honor of Mother's Day 2015, here's one of the coolest, classiest moms of vintage TV: Diahann Carroll, from the 1968-71 series Julia. For anyone who wasn't there, it may be difficult to understand that this gentle, charming comedy series was seen as ground-breaking in its day. But it starred an African-American actress as a lead character who wasn't a maid or a housekeeper, and back then that was still a novelty for network TV.

Miss Carroll played a widow whose husband had died in Vietnam. Julia was now raising Corey (played by Marc Copage, above) alone, while managing a successful career as a registered nurse. Despite network skepticism, audiences embraced the show. Julia was sometimes criticized for failing to depict the harsher realities of race relations in 20th century America. Yet it did offer viewers of all kinds the chance to visit a place where kindness and acceptance usually prevailed -- and perhaps that helped us picture making the real world a bit more like that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Author Emerges in Public

I'm back! I had a great time visiting Reno, Nevada to speak at the annual History Symposium of the National Automobile Museum this past weekend.

The symposium covered the decade of the 1950s from an array of fascinating angles. I learned a little something about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, restoring classic cars of the period, and more. For my part, I talked about those Women Who Made Television Funny, and the dramatic growth and development that took place in the television industry between 1950 and 1959.

Afterwards, at the book signing, I met some very nice people, including museum volunteer Lynne (pictured). I signed some books that are apparently destined to become birthday gifts in the not-too-distant future, so I hope you like them, Joe, Linda, etc. Jackie Frady and Barbara Clark were gracious hosts for all their symposium guests, and I was able to see a little bit of Reno in my time off. Now I guess it's time to get back to work -- another book due in a few months. Thanks, Reno!