Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Special Guest Tonight

That Girl: Marlo meets the Merm.
For some viewers, it's a special treat that makes an otherwise run-of-the-mill sitcom episode stand out. For others, it's a sure sign that the show's writers are fresh out of story ideas. I'm talking about the use of celebrity guest stars in your favorite sitcom.

The idea isn't a new one; radio stars like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen regularly welcomed guest stars at least back to the 1940s. In the mid-1950s, the I Love Lucy writers had the inspired notion to send Lucy, Ricky, and the Mertzes to Hollywood, resulting in unforgettable scenes like Lucy's disastrous meeting with William Holden at the Hollywood Brown Derby, or a classic pantomime with Harpo Marx. Surely no one will ever top Lucy's record for meeting (and annoying!) celebrities in her four weekly series.

Obviously, some shows lend themselves to the concept better than others. Since That Girl told the story of an aspiring actress building a career in New York, it was easy enough to work in guests such as the queen of Broadway musical comedy, Ethel Merman (above). It was a little tougher to logically place Hollywood stars in Hooterville, and you would have thought being stranded on an "uncharted isle" would have kept the cast of Gilligan's Island pretty isolated. That didn't stop Zsa Zsa Gabor, Phil Silvers, and a few others from stopping by, though.

Do you have a favorite sitcom episode featuring a big-name guest star? Feel free to post your choice in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sothern Style

Sothern (r.) with longtime pal Lucille Ball.
Happy birthday to the woman Lucille Ball herself called "the best comedian in this business, bar none" -- movie, TV, and radio star Ann Sothern, born January 22, 1909 in Valley City, North Dakota. A popular movie performer of the 1930s and 1940s, she launched a successful television career with her sitcom Private Secretary (1953-57), which depicted the life of a working woman long before Mary Tyler Moore's classic show. As Ann told an interviewer in 1954, "When we first started the [series] I nearly collapsed after nine days. We tried to shoot three films in that time ... Now we do one a week, and the pace is still terrific. It's grueling, exacting and demanding -- but I love it."

After four years of Secretary, Ann returned to weekly television in 1958, playing Katy O'Connor, assistant manager of a New York City hotel, in CBS' The Ann Sothern Show. That series never became a Top Ten hit, but ran until 1961 and was seen afterwards in syndicated reruns. Perhaps Ann's most notorious role found her providing the voice of an antique automobile in NBC's short-lived My Mother the Car (1965-66). Late in life, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her final film, 1987's The Whales of August. After a long and productive life, she died on March 15, 2001 at her home in Idaho.

You can read more about Ann in my book The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Go to YouTube to see Ann and her pal Lucy working together on a 1959 episode of The Ann Sothern Show.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Joining the eBook Revolution

I must admit, I'm a late convert to the eBook revolution. Yes, I was one of those people saying, "I like real books -- paper and ink and dust jackets and all." And that's still true. But since I was given an eBook reader as a gift a few months ago, I've really fallen in serious like with it. I use it regularly, and I've already purchased nearly 50 books in this format.

One of the nice things about eBooks is that sometimes they cost less than regular books, making it easier to try new authors and subjects. I enjoy reading about TV and motion picture history, and books in that field, which often come from academically oriented publishers, are not always priced for my budget. But eBook versions are often more affordable, especially if you catch a sale. At present, three of my own titles are available as eBooks. For a Kindle user, like me, all three are available for less than $15. If your local public library, like mine, carries eBooks, you might not even need to spend that much.

Not surprisingly, for someone who still likes I Love Lucy, I'm old-fashioned enough to hope the printed book doesn't go by the wayside during my lifetime. But I'm happy to have the chance to enjoy reading in this convenient new way.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Memorable Meets: Betty White

One of America's favorite funny ladies, Betty White, turns 92 today. Like millions of other people, I am a longtime fan of her work, which made it a thrill to interview her when I wrote my book, The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms.

Any author researching books on Hollywood history can tell you that, when it comes to getting interviews, there can be many a slip between cup and lip. Some celebrities are difficult to track down; others may answer letters weeks or months later; some just plain ignore most requests for interviews. I didn't know what to expect when I wrote a letter to Betty White, who was not retired and resting on her laurels but a busy working actress. I was surprised and impressed when I received an answer within a week, and was able to conduct the interview a few days later. Given the book's focus, we talked primarily about her 1950s shows, Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels, and I was able to capture some behind-the-scenes stories that hadn't previously been recorded.

When the book was published, I sent her an inscribed copy, thanking her again for participating. She responded with a handwritten note saying she wasn't sure she merited being featured alongside stars like Lucille Ball, Donna Reed, and Gracie Allen, but that she was pleased to be included. She closed with a postscript: "I love the book!"

Now that's a class act. Happy birthday, Betty!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Art of Being Mr. B

Aside from Gale Gordon's Mr. Mooney (The Lucy Show), he may be classic TV's most frustrated boss. But Don DeFore (1913-1993) told a reporter in 1965 that he loved playing beleaguered George Baxter (a/k/a "Mr. B") on Hazel.

"I'd like to write a book about what Hazel has done for me," DeFore said. "For the first time the show gave me comedy with a follow through. She's perfect for me because I'm always on the hook of exasperation, and that's the kind of comedy I like." It also gave him a chance to work closely with one of America's finest actresses, Tony and Oscar winner Shirley Booth. DeFore admired the versatility she brought to her sitcom role: "I keep wondering how we can play another scene in that dining room that's different and every time she comes up with something new."

After a lengthy and successful film career, DeFore was used to public recognition, but Hazel took it to a new level. "It's such a different public. You meet strangers and because you come into their homes, they act as if they know you personally. I'm Mr. B, not Don DeFore, and it's a nice, warm feeling."

Although he didn't know it at the time of the interview, DeFore's work as Mr. B was near its end. After the show's fourth season, NBC canceled Hazel. Trying to spruce up the show to sell it to another network, Screen Gems executives introduced a new family for Hazel to serve, meaning that DeFore and co-star Whitney Blake (Dorothy) lost their jobs. The show did win a fifth season, moving to CBS, but many fans still prefer the original cast.

You can read more about this classic sitcom in my book Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record, which includes a detailed episode guide. If you appreciate DeFore's work in film and television, you might also visit his fan club page on Facebook.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Paying a Call on Vic Mizzy

Mizzy at the keyboard.
Happy birthday to Vic Mizzy (January 9, 1916-October 17, 2009), whose classic theme songs to The Addams Family and Green Acres are beloved by Baby Boomers, and still enjoyed today by newer viewers of these timeless shows. Opening-title sequences are virtually extinct today; instead of a great song and lyrics, you usually just get credits flashed over the first scene. Boring! In the 1960s, though, an opening theme was a show's signature, doing much to explain the show to new viewers, and give a comforting sense of familiarity to returning fans.

Although his finger-snapping theme for the Addams clan, and his musical debate between Oliver and Lisa Douglas on the merits of city vs. country life, remain his best-known work, he composed others. Here's one you might not know, because the show itself was a flop, and vanished quickly. But let Mizzy's theme for The Pruitts of Southampton, which starred Phyllis Diller, seep into your consciousness, and you'll be singing it for days. He also wrote popular songs; I didn't know until recently that he collaborated with Manny Curtis on My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time, sung in the 1940s by Doris Day.

For an in-depth career interview with Vic Mizzy, head to the Emmy TV Legends site.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Who's Joe Penner?

The star of The Joe Penner Show at the microphone.
In 2014, his career wouldn't amount to much more than a Trivial Pursuit question. But 80 years ago, in 1934, syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger called him "the greatest theatrical sensation to pop up in recent years," pointing out that the "overnight success" owed his newfound fame almost exclusively to the still-young medium of radio. His name? Joe Penner.

Born as József Pintér in 1904, Penner was not yet thirty years old, a veteran of vaudeville and burlesque, when his guest appearance on Rudy Vallee's radio show shot his career into high gear. Soon, he had his own weekly show, The Baker's Broadcast (later revamped into The Joe Penner Show), and was convulsing audiences with his catchphrases, "Wanna buy a duck?" and "You nasty man!" As Hellinger reported in May 1934, "A Joe Penner book is soon to be published. The Marx company, greatest of the top manufacturers, will soon place a number of Joe Penner toys on the market. The Penner radio contract for next year calls for twice this year's sum. The movies are angling with big hooks. And meanwhile -- while he's waiting -- the man is knocking out his 10 to 15 thousand dollars a week." 

Penner told Hellinger, "I don't feel any different from the way I did a year ago, except for the comfort of the money that will protect my future. I suppose I'm something of a vogue now. But we both know that it can't last forever." That statement, alas, was all too prescient. Joe Penner died of heart disease on January 10, 1941, only 36 years old but with his career already on the downslide. Thanks to a small group of loyal fans, however, he isn't completely forgotten. Visit the Wanna Buy a Duck? site for audio and video clips of his comedy, memorabilia, and a look at the brief career of this neglected comedian.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: Telling Peg Entwistle's Story

It's sad to say that actress Peg Entwistle (1908-1932) is probably remembered more for her death than for her life. What most people know about her is this: At the age of 24, she took a fatal jump from the famous Hollywood sign, leaving behind a suicide note that read, "I am afraid I'm a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain."

But there was far more to this actress' life than the way it ended, and her story is told thoroughly and compellingly in James Zeruk, Jr.'s new book, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography (McFarland, $39.95). As film historian Eve Golden says in her foreword, "Almost every story you have heard about Peg Entwistle is wrong." After seven years of research, and interviews with surviving family, Zeruk has produced a worthy biography showing why this actress should be remembered for her professional accomplishments as well as her sometimes troubled personal life.

It's often assumed that she was simply a Hollywood newcomer who couldn't measure up, and killed herself in despair over losing a movie contract at RKO. In fact, Peg Entwistle was a Broadway veteran already well along in her chosen career at the time she made her film debut. Among those who admired Peg's work as a stage actress was a young Bette Davis, who would say decades later that an Entwistle performance helped inspire her to become an actress. Though it's true that most of her performance from her first (and only) RKO film, Thirteen Women, was cut, Zeruk shows us more clearly why this happened. His research reveals that the role she played, which included a lesbian storyline controversial for 1932, fell victim primarily to the censor's demands. Beyond that, he delves deeply into the question of why this talented, strong, accomplished woman considered herself "a coward" at the time of her death, reasons that had little to do with losing a movie job at RKO.

If you're a fan of Hollywood history, or just enjoy a well-written, carefully researched biography, Zeruk's book is well worth your attention. The author has a website at