Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Leave it to Beaver: Classic Family Fun!

Jerry Mathers as Beaver Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

Some actors spend their lives tending bar in Hollywood restaurants waiting to be discovered. Jerry Mathers walked into a department store with his mother and shortly after he'd learned how to walk and talk he was already a Hollywood "pin-up" boy--literally. A department store owner saw his cute freckled face and used his photo for the cover for the stores calendar. Six months later, in 1954, he debuted on the Ed Wynn show. In 1955 he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. Mathers appeared in two more films before 1957 when he was cast as Beaver Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. Jerry Mathers was a not-so-typical all-American boy. He was an overnight sensation. Promoters, producers, directors, and viewing audiences across America were crazy for the kid from the time they first saw that cute face on the department store calendar. 

Meet the Cleavers (or the actors)

Of course we must start with Beaver! Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) lives with his parents and older brother in the town of Mayfield. When Jerry Mathers auditioned for the role he was a bit fidgety. The producers asked if he was nervous and he said, "No, but I gotta go to my Boy Scout meeting!" That sealed the deal. They were looking for an all-American boy who caught frogs, rode his bicycle with his friends so he could be home in time for dinner, and spoke respectfully to his parents. They found the right boy in Jerry Mathers. 

Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers who played Wally and Beaver in Leave it to Beaver.

Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow) is Beaver's older brother. He grew up in Hollywood, but like many young actors (John Wayne's protege Gail Russell) Dow just wanted to have fun with his friends. He wasn't in Hollywood seeking stardom, he was just being a kid. Sometimes that attitude brings out the best in a child during an audition. Dow's friend auditioned for a show and Dow promised to be there for moral support. He was a bit too supportive--he got the part! When Leave it to Beaver ended, Dow became a regular on daytime soaps. He even starred in a very important commercial for McDonalds Restaurants (he married the woman who gave him the role!) 

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as Ward and June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.

Hugh Beaumont stars as Ward Cleaver, the well-intentioned father who works hard as an accountant, but is eager to advise his sons. He sometimes makes mistakes. He is human, and that's why we like him. Beaumont had a side career as a Methodist minister. On the show, Beaumont is married to June (Barbara Billingsley), the perfect mom for the, well, average family! I am well-familiar with Billingsley as she was a regular in detective dramas and B-movies. In spite of her obvious acting talent, Billingsley was convinced she was cast in the role because the producers felt sorry for her as her husband recently died. Clearly, she was cast because she was the perfect mom for Beaver. The line you hear her speak most often in the show? "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver..."

Jerry Mathers as Beaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

I just have to include this story! I read it in John Javna's Cult TV. When Jerry Mathers auditioned for the role, he was asked to cry, but struggled with the request. Hugh Beaumont, also auditioning for the role of Beaver's father, took Mathers aside and quietly suggested that if he cover his face with his hands and laugh it will sound the same as crying. According to Jerry Mathers, he went home that night and prayed that Hugh Beaumont would get the part of Ward Cleaver, and he did. 

Trouble, Trouble, Trouble

Part of the appeal of this show is the fact that they really are average. They are not too perfect, in spite of the fact that Barbara Billingsley is always shown cooking dinner in a dress with pearls (she wore the pearls because she had an indentation in her throat that she thought looked bad on camera). When Ward comes home from work, the first words he generally hears from his wife are, "Ward, I'm very worried about the Beaver." 

The phrase Beaver hears most often from his brother, Wally, is, "Boy, Beave, are you gonna get it..." Beaver is subjected to a tremendous amount of family advice, particularly from his brother, but the most touching advice the Beaver hears comes from his father who tells him, "I don't care what kind of trouble you may get into in your life, you don't ever need to be afraid to come to your parents and tell them." 

Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow as Beaver and Wally in Leave it to Beaver. 

Beaver attends Grant Avenue Grammar School, which means he is in school with students from kindergarten age through eighth grade. Beaver is in the second grade when the show begins and his brother, Wally, is in the eighth grade, and naturally feels a bit of responsibility toward his younger brother. 

In the episode, "The State Versus Beaver, which aired on March 26, 1958, Ward helps Beaver and his friend, Larry, build a homemade race car (powered by a lawn mower engine), but he also provides them with a long list of restrictions, including restricting them from riding the vehicle in the street. Of course, Beaver and Larry break just about every rule, including driving the car in the street. Beaver is afraid to tell his parents and convinces Wally to appear as his "guardian." Beaver receives a ticket and appears before a judge in traffic court. The judge agrees to "sponge off" the record, but Wally does tell his father about the incident. When Ward asks Wally why Beaver didn't come to him in the first place, Wally replies, "he didn't want you to feel bad 'cause you got a kid like him." Aww. This episode goes straight to the heart, and of course Beaver is given the "talk" about always telling your parents, no matter what you do.  

So, who are these trouble-making co-conspirators? 

Wally and the Beaver both have best friends, and if truth be told, the two boys and their friends manage to find equal amounts of trouble, but we'll start with Wally's friends. 

Ken Osmond plays Eddie Haskell, Wally's best friend in Leave it to Beaver. Osmond later joined the Los Angeles Police Department and was shot in the line of duty, saved by his bullet-proof vest.

Perhaps the most famous of their friends is Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), who is Wally's best friend. He is Wally's foil. Classic good versus bad. Where Wally tries (but sometimes fails) to do the right thing, Eddie inevitably tries to do what he knows is wrong. He is known as a two-faced wise guy, but Wally, remember, is a very forgiving person. (Believe it or not, Ken Osmond, in his adult years, joined the Los Angeles Police Department and was decorated for valor when he was shot in the line of duty, saved by his bullet-proof vest.) The reason Eddie is fun to watch because he's so obnoxious! And, because he brings out the best in Wally, highlighting Wally's ability to forgive. I like that in Wally.

Wally is also friends with Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford (Frank Bank). Lumpy is big, a bit slow, and according to leaveittobeaver.com, Beaver refers to the Eddie Haskell/Lumpy Rutherford team as "Creeps Incorporated." In the real world, though, Frank Bank eventually became a successful stock broker in Palm Springs, which only goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover, or its on-screen character! 

Beaver's best friend is Robert "Rusty" Stevens (Larry Mondello). Rusty of course has red hair, hence the nickname, and a nice spread of freckles to highlight the hair. He is a bit whiny and always munching on something, most often an apple that he has pulled out of his pocket.

Kid Talk

Beaver, Wally and his friends were known for their "kid talk" on the show. Since the emphasis was on presenting them as average American kids (note the contrast between the carefully dressed and cleanliness of Ward and June to their dirty, dusty sons), then of course they are going to come up with their own form of kid slang. 

Wally and Beaver both use the word "gyp" when they've been cheated out of something. Of course, in contemporary television the word would not be used as it is a hurtful form of expression implying that gypsies are thieves, but this is not something that ever would have occurred to Wally and Beaver. They also talk about "messing around," which is a phrase I still use to explain that I'm not really doing anything important. 

Some of the more interesting terms are "hunka," which means a large serving, generally of desert. They also use words that were popular in the 1940s with gangs, which is an interesting cultural observation, words like "rat" and "wiseguy." Some of Beaver's favorite words are: crummy; creep; grubby; goofy; and his favorite phrase when he is feeling frustrated or receives some form of punishment is "oh, gee whiz." 

Popularity of Leave it to Beaver 

Leave it to Beaver had solid ratings, consistent ratings, and yet, it never made it into the Top 30. This could be because of the competition in the time slot--during its first season it was up against The Defenders and in its final season it competed with Perry Mason, and in the 50s, shows about law and order were as popular as shows about families. Nevertheless, critics called the show charming and sincere. Variety compared the series to Tom Sawyer

Family time for the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver. 

Leave it to Beaver ran from October 4, 1957, to September 12, 1963. During that time, the show received two Emmy nominations, both in 1958 for Best New Program Series of the Year and Best Teleplay Writing for the pilot episode "Beaver Gets Spelled." Years later, in 1984, Jerry Mathers received the Young Artist's Former Child Star Special Award and in 1987, Ken Osmond and Tony Dow both received the Young Artist's Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award. Ken Osmond was also nominated in 2005 for TV Land's Character Most Desperately in Need of a Timeout Award! Leave it to Beaver did make Time Magazine's list of "The 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time" and the show placed at number 74 on Bravo's list of "100 greatest TV Characters."

Jerry Mathers as Beaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

If I had to name one reason why I am a dedicated fan of Leave it to Beaver it would have to be the undeniable fact that the characters are real--they are flawed. They make mistakes, and, well, golly gee, Leave it to Beaver is just plain fun. 

Postscript: Regarding my comment about the word "gyp." According to my most trusted word origin source, World Wide Words, it is widely believed to come from gypsy, but the word actually originated in the U.S., so the author of the page questions the racist connection.

  • Applebaum, Irwin. "The Gang." leaveittobeaver.org. Retrieved April 16, 2013.
  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kung Fu: Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting!

David Carradine starred as Caine in Kung Fu from 1972 to 1975. 

Today's topic is the 1970s television phenomenon Kung FuKung Fu aired on ABC from October 1972 to June of 1975 and never once made it into the Top 25 shows, but it was nominated for two Golden Globes and was undoubtedly a cult TV favorite for children and teens in the 1970s. Kung Fu had everyone Kung Fu fighting! 

I believe Kung Fu was popular with the masses for a number of reasons. First, the art of Kung Fu was popular at that time. Chinese American martial artist Bruce Lee, instructor, philosopher, filmmaker and actor dominated Hollywood with his powerful on-screen presence and intense physical appearance and performances. Just as skinny teens in the 1950s wanted to be Charles Atlas, the man who never allowed anyone to kick sand in his face, young men in the 1970s wanted to be Bruce Lee, who played Kato in The Green Hornet, fighting crime, kicking butt and asking questions later. The emphasis, of course, was taking care of oneself, and defending the oppressed. 

Caine's Childhood   

Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), the star of Kung Fu, is the child of a Chinese woman and American sea captain. He is raised in a Shaolin temple to be a monk, but in the pilot episode he is forced to flee his temple family when he kills the Chinese Emperor's nephew, an act of revenge for the murder of his mentor and elder, Master Po (Keye Luke), a man of peace who was shot with a gun, an issue that Caine often struggles with throughout the show. Caine manages to escape to America where he searches for his half brother, Danny Caine, in the American West while constantly on the run from Chinese government agents. 

Keye Luke plays Master Po in Kung Fu

In each episode, Caine flashes back to his childhood experiences growing up in the temple and the teachings of Master Po as he searches for answers to his current problems (young Caine is played by Radames Pera). In these flashbacks, Master Po refers to young Caine as "Grasshopper." The fact that Caine is Chinese and in the Old West is a problem in itself as the Chinese were forced to endure tremendous prejudice, particularly when they were hired by the railroads to work for lower wages. Caine does not limit his use of Kung Fu to defend the Chinese, though. He will protect anyone who is threatened or in danger. Unfortunately, this means he is constantly on the move to avoid retaliation.

David Carradine as Caine, a man of peace, in the television cult show Kung Fu. 
Life in the West is even more difficult for a man raised to be a monk as Caine's life quest is to find peace. He lives for truth and goodness. He is patient and shows great humility. He will only kill if forced to defend himself or someone who is victimized from death, only with great reluctance. In the words of David Carradine, quoted in Cult TV, "Caine has a great "reverence for all life." It is these qualities that made him so appealing to the Flower Children of the 1960s and early 70s. Kung Fu was also positive education for children in the 1970s because Caine fought for the weak, the victimized, the oppressed, and he always won. More importantly, Caine taught children self-control and the advantages of living a peaceful life. 

David Carradine and Chief Dan George in Kung Fu, 1973.

In fact, I believe Caine was adored by children who developed a Kung Fu style of communication in the 1970s. Schoolchildren across America would reply to their friends and parents by placing their palms together in front of their chest and saying, "Of course, Master." The appropriate way to respond to a question was to ask a question. "Do you hear the wind, Grasshopper? Do you hear the water rushing in the stream, Grasshopper? That is your answer." Everyone was a "Grasshopper." Kung Fu talk was great fun! As a teen, I had a secret crush on Caine. I never missed an episode of Kung Fu. If Caine were a man, I would marry him. (Insert sigh here.) 

David Carradine

David Carradine, who plays Caine in the show, comes from a family of famous film and television stars. His father, John Carradine, made a career out of playing mad scientists in Hollywood horror films, but he also made appearances on numerous television anthologies, such as Love, American Style, Night Gallery, and even played a preacher in an episode of Kung Fu

John Carradine, father of David, Keith, and Robert Carradine, in a trailer screenshot from Blood and Sand. John Carradine started the Carradine acting dynasty. 

John Carradine had three sons: David, Keith, and Robert, all famous actors in their own right. Not surprisingly, the equally skilled actress Martha Plimpton is his granddaughter, daughter of Keith Carradine. Each of these actors has their own style and appeal, and are equally successful in film and TV. When the producers chose David Carradine for this role, they not only chose a star with the perfect personality and skill to carry this role, they also cast his family name. 

The Mystery of the Origin of Kung Fu

In her memoir, Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew, Bruce Lee's wife, Linda, claims Paramount stole the idea for Kung Fu from her husband. In fact, she presents such a convincing argument that I feel uncomfortable listing Warner Brothers on my source list! 

Actor, director, instructor, and Kung Fu expert Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee first mentioned his idea for a remarkably similar show during a 1971 interview with Pierre Berton. He said that he wanted to play a warrior in the Old West, but he was having trouble convincing Paramount or Warner Brothers to buy the show. The show was eventually produced by Warner Brothers, who denied any connection with Bruce Lee's suggested project and also denied rumors that Lee was their original choice to play Caine. Tragically, Bruce Lee died in 1973, when the series was at its peak.

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Kung Fu. Creator: Ed Spielman. Perf. David Carradine, Radames Pera, Keye Luke. Warner Bros. Television. Running Time: 60 min.  
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

The Jetsons: Saturday Morning Cartoons

I came from a rather large family and every Saturday morning my sisters, brother and I would wrestle for the couch so we could watch our favorite cartoons. From The Flintstones to The Archies, we loved them all, but tonight we'll discuss one of our favorites, the futuristic family, The Jetsons

The Jetsons were one of my favorite space-age families! 

The Jetsons were actually on the air twice, from 1962-1963 and 1985 to 1987. I think part of what made The Jetsons so special was their cool lifestyle. The Jetsons lived in Orbit City in 2062. They lived in homes, worked in businesses and shopped in stores that were all raised high above the ground on columns. The Jetson family lived in an apartment building, the Skypad Apartments. They seemed like a typical American family, but their lifestyle was awesome! 

Meet the Jetsons

George Jetson (George O'Hanlon) is the head of the family. He's 40 years old and a loving, gentle family man who is also a bit of a goof. He makes a lot of mistakes. He works for Spacely's Sprockets. His job is to turn the Referential Universal Digital Indexer on and off--a challenging job, sure, but in 2062 everything is mechanized, so there really isn't much for humans to do! George loves and adores his wife, children, and dog, Astro. 

George and Jane Jetson

Jane Jetson (Penny Singleton) is 33 and a housewife. She is the mother of two children. She is also obsessed with the latest space-age fashions and household devices. She loves to shop at Mooning Dales. She is a dedicated wife who works hard to make life pleasant for her family, but she is also a social butterfly. She belongs to the Galaxy Women Historical Society. 

Judy Jetson (Janet Waldo) is a 15 year old typical teenager and student at Orbit High School. Her primary interests include shopping for clothes like her mother, hanging out with her friends like her mother, and discussing her secret life with her digital diary--apparently times changed faster than the producers thought they would when they wrote the show! 

The Jetson's youngest child is 6 1/2 (that 1/2 is important) Elroy Jetson (Daws Butler). He is exceptionally intelligent and a space science expert, one of those children who makes his parents feel intellectually stunted. He is polite and behaves himself. He attends Little Dipper School and studies space history, astrophysics, star geometry and basic math. 

Astro (Don Messick) is the family dog. He had a former owner, Mr. Gottrockets, who called him Tralfas. He is now George Jetson's best friend. He speaks in ruff English that resembles the grumbles of another famous and favorite cartoon character Scooby Doo.

The final member of the family is Rosie, who is the household robot. She is considered to be a bit outdated, but she is a member of the family. She does all housework, some of the parenting chores, and is a bit bossy. There really isn't much for Rosie to do, but boss the family around since everything is mechanized. 

Futuristic Utopia

The daily life of the Jetsons is surprisingly boring. In fact, I think the reason we were so obsessed with this show was because of the space age devices. It didn't have much of a plot. There was little excitement. George Jetson leaves for work every day in his flying saucer with the bubble top and his family uses their time-saving leisure devices. 

The Jetsons--I always wanted a car like that one, but in red!

I guess we enjoyed the Jetsons so much because they sparked our imaginations, and many of the devices that seemed so cool back then are in homes now! They were also a loving family and good role models. I think the message behind The Jetsons is: Futuristic utopia can be boring. If you don't ever do anything, well, you don't ever do anything! 

  • The Jetsons. Dir. Joseph Barbera, William Hanna. Perf. George O'Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Janet Waldo, Don Messick. Hanna-Barbera Productions. Running Time: 30 min.    

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I Love Lucy: The Funniest American Comedy with the Saddest Ending

I Love Lucy was a masterpiece in comedy. With its ridiculous plots (and Lucy's ridiculous behavior) and hilariously funny one-liners, no other show could compete. Lucille Ball, a tall, stunningly beautiful ex-showgirl didn't hesitate to make herself look silly for a laugh, and that's what made her so charming--her ability to join the audience in laughing at herself. 

The Incomparable Lucile Ball

Lucille Ball dropped out of high school when she was 15 to become an actress. Unfortunately, she had a rough start--she flunked out of the John Murray Anderson School of Drama! (The star of the school at that time was 18 year old Bette Davis!) Lucille then tried modeling for a career. She modeled hats, which always looked lovely on her bright red hair; modeled for billboards, and briefly changed her name to Diane Belmont trying to appear more sophisticated, but she eventually realized that the public didn't want sophistication, they wanted Lucy! 

Lucy appeared with Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and the Three Stooges in Three Little Pigskins. It's not often that Hollywood quickly recognizes star material in an actor, but they did in Lucille Ball. She was soon cast alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Gene Kelly, and Katherine Hepburn. 

A Match Made in the Commissary

In June of 1940, the lovely, leggy, red-haired model Lucille was at the commissary at RKO studios when a devastatingly handsome Cuban bandleader asked her if she knew how to rumba. Of course she said no, hoping he would teach her, which he did. The couple fell hopelessly in love, with the emphasis on hopeless as it was well-known that Desi Arnaz enjoyed spending time with women, something Lucille knew from the start, but chose to ignore. 

Desi Arnaz was actually the son of a Cuban senator and his mother was considered one of the most beautiful women in Latin America according to John Javna's Cult TV. He was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y Acha III into a wealthy family in Santiago. When the Batista revolution exploded in Cuba in 1933, Desi was 16 years old. He fled to America with his mother and they found a home in Miami, Florida. Desi quickly learned English, which enabled him to find employment quite easily. He was hired as a singer for the Xavier Cugat band. Critics found his singing tolerable, but raved about his looks and when he was 23 he was cast in the film Too Many Girls. Lucille Ball was also in the film. As a interesting bit of irony, when she met and fell in love with her husband, he really was a famous bandleader!  

A Failing Marriage Sparks a History-Making Sitcom

At the same time the audience is laughing at the antics of Lucille, there is always the very public knowledge hovering in their minds that she created the show to save her failing marriage. Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911-April 26-1989) and Desi Arnaz (March 2, 1917-December 2, 1986) eloped on November 29, 1940. The Marriage was problematic from the start due to the performance schedule of Desi Arnaz, who was always on the road, and constant rumors of his infidelity. 

Lucy was searching for a way to keep the two together and thought she'd found it when she was cast as Liz Cugat for the CBS radio program My Favorite Husband in 1948. The show was a great success and she was asked to develop it for television, but she insisted on having Desi Arnaz on the show. CBS was reluctant due to the Cuban background of Arnaz, so Lucille Ball created the Desilu Productions company hoping to convince sponsors to buy the show if she created it herself. They promoted the show as a vaudeville act with Lucille Ball playing the role she made famous in I Love Lucy, the zany housewife constantly trying to appear on her husband's show. 

Lucille Ball was a clever woman, always. She realized early on in her marriage that she was dealing with an insecure man who was apparently jealous of his wife's success, so she created a show that made him the hero. The vaudeville act was a hit, and CBS bought the television show. The show temporarily brought them closer together as Desi Arnaz cancelled his performance tour to appear on television in I Love Lucy

Friends, Neighbors, and Landlords 

Lucy was undoubtedly the star of the show, which starred Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, and their neighbors/landlords, William Frawley as Fred Mertz and Vivian Vance as Fred's wife, Ethel. Desi and Fred were like two peas in a pod, constantly grumbling about their zany wives. Ricky's trademark shout was "Loooocy," which he used when he was angry with his wife and when he was seeking the love of his life, either way, but with a different tone of voice. Lucy's trademark was a bawling "Waaahh" whenever she knew she was in trouble, which was often. Ethel was the voice of reason in her friendship with Lucy. She would shake her head, express her doubt, but eventually go along with Lucy's plans. 

The cast of I Love Lucy: William Frawley, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball. 

William Frawley (1887-1966) played Fred Mertz on the show. He didn't audition for the role, he called Lucille Ball and asked for the part. The two met ten years earlier, but Lucille remembered him and cast him in the role, even though he was quite a bit older than his on-screen wife, which sometimes created tension when they were off the set. Frawley was a professional, though, always. He was a veteran vaudevillian who also appeared in over 100 films. He was an accomplished singer who introduced the song "My Mammy" to vaudeville. Unfortunately, he also suffered from the disease of alcoholism. Lucille made it clear to Frawley that he would be fired with no second chances if he ever appeared drunk on the set of the show, and he never did.

The cast of I Love Lucy from the 1955 episode "Face to Face." 

Vivian Vance (1909-1979) played Ethel Mertz, Fred's wife. When she was hired for the show, Vance had only appeared in two other films, which obviously made Lucille and Desi uncomfortable until they watched her act on stage and she won their hearts. She was cast as a frumpy housewife, which unfortunately became less and less appealing to her as time wore on, particularly considering the great difference in age between Vance and her co-star, William Frawley, who she often complained was old enough to be her father--Vance was 39 and Frawley was 64. Vance, however, was loyal, and when I Love Lucy ended and Lucille Ball started The Lucy Show in 1965, Vance stayed with Lucy as a regular cast member.  

And Baby Makes Three

Lucille Ball always wanted to have children and tragically suffered through numerous miscarriages. The first child of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Luci Desiree Arnaz, was born on July 17, 1941, one month before Lucy's 40th birthday. A year later, when I Love Lucy was on the air, Lucille Ball became pregnant again. The producers decided to write the pregnancy into the script, which was groundbreaking television. They insisted, however, that no one use the word "pregnant." They could only say Lucy was "expecting!" Lol! Oh how times have changed. 

Luci Desiree Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz Jr. in Here's Lucy, 1967.

Little Ricky's appearance on the show was made in the episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," which aired on January 20, 1953, the same day as the inauguration of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Little Ricky was clearly more popular than Ike! Eisenhower's inauguration attracted 29 million viewers while Little Ricky's birth drew 44 million viewers. 

Lucille Ball with Richard and Ronald Simmons, the twins who played Little Ricky. 

The day Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz IV, a record 44 million viewers tuned in to the show. Little Ricky, as he was called, was presented on the show as a doll and a child named Jerry Hausner provided the real life newborn baby cries. Later in the show, six-month-old twins Richard and Ronald Simmons played the role of Little Ricky. Then three-year-old twins Michael and Joseph Mayer were cast in the role. Richard Keith was the final actor to play Little Ricky. 

Most Popular Episodes (in my Little World!) 

In addition to "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," there were many other popular episodes that attracted a wide audience. In the 1956 episode "Lucy's Italian Move," for instance, Lucy is considered for a role in a film called Bitter Grapes. She mistakenly believes the show is about wine making and prepares for the film by flying to Rome. I will never forget the wonderful scene when Lucille Ball climbs into the grape-stomping vat with Teresa Terelli and ends up covered in grapes! One of Lucille Ball's best performances on this show, in my opinion.  

Another one of my favorites is the 1952 episode "Job Switching" when Lucy and Ethel decide to leave their jobs as housewives and are hired at a local candy making factory. They are failures in dipping and boxing and end up in the wrapping department, but cannot keep up with the conveyor belt and end up stuffing candy in their aprons, hats, and mouths. This show was often imitated by Laverne & Shirley, a spin-off of the comedy Happy Days. Laverne and Shirley work at the conveyor belt at Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee and are often shown making hilarious mistakes at work.  

The End, in so Many Painful Ways

I Love Lucy first aired on October 15, 1951. The finale aired on June 24, 1957. The show ranked in the Top 25 television shows every year it was on the air, and it was the number one show in America for five of those seven years. It was the first show filmed for broadcast. It was the first show seen by 10 million viewers. The show won five Emmies, including two for Best Comedy Series. It was the highest rated show in the 1950s.

Following Season Six, Lucy and Desi decided to cut down on the episodes and extend the show to 60 minutes, featuring a special guest star in each episode. The show was also renamed The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, then The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and ran from 1957 to 1960 with the same cast as I Love Lucy

On March 2, 1960, Desi Arnaz's birthday, Lucille Ball filed for divorce after they completed filming the show. At the end of the episode, "Lucy Meets the Moustache," the couple kiss, and for many years this was the most famous kiss in Hollywood when the audience understood that Lucy was kissing her husband goodbye forever. The show ended with a song, "That's All." 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Leibman, Nina. "Lucille Ball." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved April 10, 2013. 
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Happy Days, and two of Hollywood's Most Famous Actor/Director/Producers

Happy Days was the start of retro, and the ultimate proof that you can never please a teenager. In the sixties, American teens rebelled against the perfect families of the 1950s seen in shows such as Father Knows Best so they could tune in to watch the blended family sibling rivalry in The Brady Bunch. in the 1970s, they mocked the ultra-fake cheeriness of the The Brady Bunch so they could return to the 1950s with Happy Days and its theme song, "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets! Then, in the 1990s, you could not pry American teens away from the set when That Seventies Show was on. What a long, strange trip it's been, America!

Ron Howard and Henry Winkler in the 1976 episode of Happy Days, "Fonzie's Apartment." 

One of the most interesting aspects of Happy Days, in my opinion, is what happened to the two main characters after the show--their careers did not simply "take off," Ron Howard and Henry Winkler became two of the most famous Hollywood superstars in history! Ron Howard has directed 35 films including The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind, Far and Away, and won two Oscars. Henry Winkler produced 39 films and won two Golden Globes--he's come a long way from The Fonz!

The Fonz, An American Idol

Although he didn't begin the show as the star, and in all fairness shared the star status with Ron Howard, there is no denying that Henry Winkler's character, Arthur Fonzerelli, A.K.A. Fonzie, or "The Fonz," was an American teen idol. The Fonz revived the black leather jacket look, slicked hair, and likely drove many parents in the 70s close to the brink of insanity as their children copied his favorite phrases, "Heyyyy..." and "Whooa..."

Fonzie was an unexpected cult figure. In fact, according to John Javna, author of Cult TV, who referred to The Fonz as "a cross between James Dean and Superman," the focus of the show was supposed to be primarily on the friendship between Ron Howard, who played the all-American boy Richie Cunningham, and his trouble-making friend, Potsie, played by Anson Williams. Instead, American teens were obsessed with The Fonz, who was supposed to be a supporting cast member. Now, his leather jacket is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution!

Fonzie was a lady's man who generally had one lady beneath each arm. He had a special talent with juke boxes and vending machines--he smacked them on the top with his fist and they instantly cooperated. He was also known for his skill with motorcycles and cars.

Fonzie referred to Richie's father as Mr. C. Interestingly, Fonzie and Mr. C. were the only two characters who appeared in every episode of Happy Days.

The All American Family

The Happy Days plot was simple, a close resemblance to the popular family sitcoms of the 1950s with a bit of satire thrown into the mix. Richie Cunningham is a high school student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) runs a hardware store.

The Cunningham Family. Clockwise, Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), Marion Cunningham (Marion   Ross), Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) and Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran). 

Richie's mother, Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross) is a stay-at-home mom who does her best to run a tight household amid the usual teenage dramas. Richie also has a younger sister, Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran) who becomes a major player later in the show when Fonzie's cousin Chachi (Scott Baio) is added to the cast and falls in love with Joanie.

The Cunningham family in a promotional photo for the show. Clockwise, Richie (Ron Howard), Joanie (Erin Moran), Marion (Marion Ross) and Howard (Tom Bosley). 

Richie also has two very close friends, Potsie and Ralph Malph. Potsie is played by Anson Williams. He is Richie's best friend in the beginning, though The Fonz becomes his friend and intimate adviser as the show develops. When this happens, Potsie is shown paired up with Ralph Malph. Potsie was one of four characters who stuck with the show through its entire run. Ralph Malph (Donny Most) was a side character who became a main player in the second season when he was paired up with Potsie. Ralph is a joker who follows up each joke with "I still got it!"

Potsie (Anson Williams), Richie (Ron Howard), The Fonz (Henry Winkler) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most) at Arnold's Drive-In, 1975. 

Richie, Potsie, and Ralph were known as "The Three Amigos" and spent most of their time at Arnold's Drive-In owned by Al Delvecchio (Al Molinaro) with the rest of the community's teenagers, including The Fonz and his many girlfriends.

Love, American Style Skit

Happy Days actually began as a skit on the popular classic anthology Love, American Style. The episode was titled "Love and the Happy Day" and aired in February of 1972. When the blockbuster film American Graffiti was released in 1973, the show inspired television genius Garry Marshall to create the sitcom Happy Days.

The first Happy Days episode aired on January 15, 1974 during the most popular prime time slot, from 8 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights. (I don't know why that was the most popular time, but I do know I never missed an episode!) The show ran until July 12, 1984 and ranked in the Top 25 seven times.

Eventually, Teenagers Grow Up...

The problem with having a family sitcom is eventually the cast grows up--they can't stay in high school forever. After a remarkable six years, Ron Howard decided to leave the show in 1980 to pursue a career in film. Richie Cunningham was written out of the show by joining the U.S. Army. Before he leaves, he marries his long-time sweetheart Lori Beth over the phone with Fonzie standing in his place. The couple returned to the show on occasion with their son, Richie Jr.

Ralph Malph also joins the Army, but Potsie goes to work for Richie's father as Assistant Manager of Cunningham Hardware. Fonzie falls in love, but he reminds the woman of her ex-husband and for the first time he is not only rejected, but broken-hearted. He eventually meets a young man named Danny who he wants to adopt, but he is turned down at first because he is a single father. Eventually, he adopts Danny and the two attend Joanie and Chachi's wedding together. 


Now here's some interesting trivia: Robin Williams first appeared as Mork on Happy Days and his show, Mork & Mindy is actually a Happy Days spin-off!

Robin Williams first appeared as Mork on Happy Days

In fact, Happy Days had a surprising number of spin-off shows, a testament to the brilliance of Garry Marshall. Marshall's daughter, actress and director Penny Marshall, appeared on Happy Days with Cindy Williams as friends of Fonzie, and they were so popular that they were given their own show, Laverne & Shirley. 

When Joanie and Chachi were dating they were a popular couple and eventually married. They also had their own show called Joanie Loves Chachi, but it was very short-lived, the victim of television politics, even though it finished in the Top 20 after its first season.


  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Lewis, Lisa Anne. "Happy Days." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved April 9, 2013. 
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Gilligan's Island: Will They Ever Come Home?

Gilligan's Island was a ridiculous show with silly characters. Who would accept that they could remain stranded on an island for three years? Well, apparently we all did! 

Bob Denver played Gilligan in Gilligan's Island

The show ran from September of 1964 to September of 1967 and every week we were seduced--not by the low-cut dresses of the curvaceous Tina Louise or the exposed belly button of Dawn Wells (both often discussed by censors), but by the idea that the misfits would be rescued from the island. 

Tina Louise played the sexy, seductive Hollywood actress Ginger Grant. 

Alas, they never were rescued. As far as we know, they remain there to this day with their gray hair and arthritis and canes, chasing Gilligan--who will forever be as agile as a monkey--through the jungle. Yes, it was the "dumbest" show on the networks, according to John Javna, author of Cult TV, who explains the success of Gilligan's Island as "Survival of the silliest!" 

If you were Stranded on a Desert Island...

I remember so much about this show--my favorite episodes, the names of the actors, even the writer, Sherwood Schwartz, who also wrote for Red Skelton and was responsible for The Brady Bunch. Schwartz cleverly used the names of the characters in the theme songs for both The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island. 

Schwartz had degrees in both zoology and psychology and probably modeled the character of the professor after himself! He wanted to write an intelligent show. In the sixties, with the threat of the Cold War hanging over our heads, it was a common "thinking" question asked in high school classes: "If someone drops the bomb, and you can only save ten people, who would you save?" This was similar to the question Schwartz asked: If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want to be with you? Keep in mind that the goal is survival. I'm not sure Schwartz kept that in mind. In the end, the castaways more closely resembled cartoon characters! 

The Castaways

When speaking of the castaways we should probably start with Gilligan. It is, after all, Gilligan's Island! Gilligan is played by Bob Denver (1935-2005), a funny, charming actor who became a popular television figure when he played Maynard G. Krebs in the 1950s called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The role of Gilligan was originally offered to Jerry Van Dyke, who turned it down. Schwartz was nervous about Denver when he was first suggested, but when the two met, Schwartz realized Bob Denver was a true television gem--charming, articulate, and cooperative. 

Gilligan's character is just plain lovable. Gilligan was the First Mate on the cruise that was originally supposed to last only three hours when the boat was blown off course in a storm. Gilligan has a heart of gold, but he's just plain silly. When the show is nearly to the end, and the castaways are about to leave the island, it is generally Gilligan's fault that something goes wrong and they remain stranded. At this point, Gilligan receives a smack on the head by the Skipper who hits Gilligan with his hat, which is supposed to be a reference to Laurel & Hardy. Gilligan is always shown in the same striped shirt and boating cap, which makes sense considering they were on a three hour cruise, but seems rather odd considering other cast members have endless wardrobes! Gilligan does not have a first name in the show, but according to fiftiesweb.com, when Schwartz was asked what his name would be if he did have a name on the show, he replied, "Willie." 

Alan Hale, Jr. played Skipper Jonas Grumby on Gilligan's Island. 

The Skipper, Jonas Grumby, owner of the S.S. Minnow cruise ship, is played by the great Alan Hale, Jr. (1921-1990). The Skipper is a grumpy man, an impatient man, a big man with an equally big heart. Like Gilligan, he wears the same outfit throughout the show. He also spends most of his time chasing Gilligan around the island smacking him with his hat, but we all know he would give his life for his little buddy.

Alan Hale, Jr., was always a professional, dedicated to his craft. Hale was performing in a Civil War film when he learned Schwartz was considering him for the part of the Skipper. On his one day off he rode a horse out of the gorge where they were filming, flew to Las Vegas, hitch-hiked to Utah, took a cab to Los Angeles, auditioned for the part, hitch-hiked back to Utah, then rode his horse back to the set in time to finish filming. Now that's determination! 

Russell Johnson in the series Black Saddle. 
Johnson played Professor Roy Hinkley in Gilligan's Island.

The Professor is the last cast member who never changed his clothes (and really, considering they started out on a three hour cruise, it makes more sense that Gilligan, the Skipper and the Professor always wore the same outfit. What did not make sense is that their outfits remained intact. Then again, this is a sitcom, it's not supposed to make sense!) 

Professor Roy Hinkley is played by Russell Johnson (born in 1924). The Professor's primary during his time on the island is coming up with a way to escape the island. The Professor may not have had a wardrobe like some of the other characters, but he had an endless supply of reference books! Roy Hinkley was surprisingly thrilled to play the role of the Professor. As quoted in Cult TV: In this day and age, I'm delighted to have a job, to be working. It's rough, and it's cold outside." 

Actress Tina Louise and Gene Barry in the Western series Burke's Law.

Actress Tina Louise (born in 1934), on the other hand, was not grateful just to have a job. Louise had a strong career before taking the role on Gilligan's Island and was somehow under the impression that the show was about a Hollywood actress stranded on an island with a bunch of misfits. There were constant rumors that she snubbed other members of the cast and was difficult to work with, and these rumors appeared to be true. She rarely spent time with the rest of the cast, who often hung out together like one big happy family, and at one point, Bob Denver refused to be photographed with her as he was tired of her rude treatment. 

Tina Louise plays Ginger Rogers, a Hollywood starlet who has an endless wardrobe of sexy, low-cut outfits. She tries to seduce just about every male on the island, including the constant parade of visitors who appear on the island and somehow manage to leave the island again without taking any of the castaways with them. She bunks with Mary Anne and spends her leisure time with Mary Anne, though the two characters have opposite personalities. 

Mary Anne Summers, played by Dawn Wells (born in 1938), is a sweet-natured girl from Horners Corners, Kansas who also has a surprisingly large wardrobe for a three hours cruise, but most of her outfits consist of short shorts and tied blouses that expose her belly button. She was chosen as a foil to Ginger Rogers character, a contrast to the sexy starlet, but anyone who grew up in the sixties knew that most young men found the character of Mary Anne far more attractive than Ginger Rogers! 

Jim Backus with Nancy Culp who play the banker and his secretary on Beverly Hillbillies. 

The final castaways were Jim Backus (1913-1989) as Thurston Howell III, and Natalie Schaefer (1900-1991) as his Howell's wife, Lovey. Howell was an obnoxious, wealthy snob--and apparently he was the same in real life! Backus insisted that he receive double the salary of the rest of the actors because he had more experience and his name was more well-known in Hollywood, and he was paid double the salary. 

Howell's wife is also a former actress in the show. Like Gilligan, she is a bit goofy, daffy, always making nonsense remarks. She also has an endless wardrobe to reflect her great wealth. Natalie Schaefer enjoyed the show, but when she first read the script she didn't think it would survive the pilot. She claimed she was so surprised when the show was syndicated that she cried. 

Gilligan's Island

Gilligan's Island was a man-made island on an artificial lake in CBS Studios in Hollywood. The landscape was painted, the trees were fake, the wind was created with wind machines. The set cost $75,000 to build, but it worked fairly well until the lake sprung a leak. There was another problem...frogs. While filming the pilot, the set was suddenly invaded by hundreds of frogs congregating around the cabins on the set, croaking so loudly that the cast could not hear themselves speak. They never did find an explanation for the frogs.

My favorite Episodes

Yes, I remember them well! There was one episode, "Little Island, Big Gun," when bank robber Jackson Farrell (Larry Storch) and his accomplice (played by J.L. Smith) arrive on the island with $500,00 and a gun. Of course, every member of the castaways tries to use their personal assets to seduce the pair into helping them off the island, including Thurston Howell III who writes the men a check. 

Another favorite is "Goodbye Old Paint." Famous artist Alexandri Gregor Dubov (Harold J. Stone), a Russian painter who believes everything he touches is a masterpiece, arrives on the island to escape the pressures of fame, then leaves by boat, abandoning the castaways. 

My all-time favorite episode is "Don't Bug the Mosquitoes." Gilligan's favorite band, The Mosquitoes (such a great name!) arrive on the island, also attempting to escape the pressures of fame. The castaways try to make Bingo, Bango, Bongo, and Irving so miserable that they will leave early, and take the castaways with them. Eventually they do leave, but the castaways, as always, are left behind. 

Gilligan's Island versus Gunsmoke

In spite of its popularity, Gilligan's Island was finally taken off the air due to the usual Hollywood politics. Gunsmoke, an American favorite for many years, was dropping in the ratings, so Gunsmoke was moved into the Monday night time slot and its ratings pushed it back into the Top Ten, while Gilligan's Island drifted off to sea with its group of misfit castaways was never given the chance to escape their island paradise. 

  • "Gilligan's Island." Fifties Web.com. Retrieved April 8, 2013.
  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.