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Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1950s (Part 1)

World War II ended and by 1947, television caught on in a big way as individual stations appeared in the largest cities. Within four years, a couple of dozen stations had grown to hundreds. The adaptation of TV by the public is still on record as the quickest rise of any technology — faster than indoor plumbing, home electricity, radio, the telephone and even the smartphone. There were just over 100,000 TV sets in the country by 1947, but by 1950, 8 million sets had been purchased — a rise from less than one percent to 88 percent of homes owning a TV.

Of course, the correlation to the Baby Boom was no accident as more couples were married, started families, bought homes and moved to the suburbs. As TV stations began to broadcast 20 hours per day, the race was on to capture the most viewers, especially in the post-dinner hours, the prime time when parents and their children might gather around the household TV.

Networks and local stations turned to Vaudeville traditions for programming inspiration. Vaudeville was a form of live variety entertainment that began in the 1880s. Vaudeville shows mixed singing, dancing, comedy, magic, acrobatics and sketch performances live on stage. By the 1930s, it saw a precipitous decline in attendance due to the Depression, the spread of movies and widespread embrace of radio in the home. As the public taste for entertainment shifted, many Vaudeville performers made the transition first to radio programs, then on to TV.

The first hour-long musical variety show broadcast regularly on network TV was Hour Glass, airing from 1947 to 1948. It pioneered the live commercial that became the standard for variety shows that followed. The show featured performers — many of whom had been Vaudeville performers — that included Dennis Day, Bert Lahr and Peggy Lee, among others. It also marked the first time a radio performer — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — appeared on TV.

It seemed like various forces were all in alignment for variety shows on TV: expanding audience, at-the-ready supply of performers and willing sponsors. Yet there was another important factor to the explosion of TV variety shows in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, and that was: the music. The American Federation of Musicians controlled the market for live musicians, and TV was a live performance venue in the early days. At the dawn of television broadcasting, the question of what and how to pay performers was brought to the forefront, as it had when silent movies transitioned into “talkies.” Various music unions had contracts in place for film appearances of musicians, but TV was a whole new — and potentially lucrative — landscape. Consequently, as music publishers sought license fees for their music and musicians, the AFM banned live music on TV until 1948. The TV industry acquiesced to the demands of the music unions as ASCAP, the company known for managing music licensing fees, charged three times the fee for a TV appearance than was charged for a film appearance.

There were other ways the TV industry struggled with how to present music. The burgeoning industry was struggling with what role it should play in the culture at large, a debate that was very much in the public realm and even on the minds of Congressional legislators. As a result, operas and classical concerts were broadcast in the 1940s and early ’50s. Variety shows took their cue from these early broadcasts, and regularly included operatic and classical music stars in their programming, alongside pop music and jazz. To further control the “live” appearance of singers, lip-synching was heavily employed to avoid any variations in the performance of a singer from the expectations of the audience. At the same time, if a show could avoid paying for live musicians, all the better for their bottom line.

Here are a few of the influential variety shows that appeared along with the Baby Boom:

Toast of the Town / The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The longest-running variety show in the history of television, Toast of the Town was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in its ninth season. Initially, Ed Sullivan was not the show’s host as guest hosts acted as emcee, and introduced the acts. The first show was hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is probably not a boomer who was over the age of 7 by the early ’60s who doesn’t remember The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The man had an uncanny knack for picking acts that were on the verge of breaking out. Famous (or infamous) icons of the Boomer Era who appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show included Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Righteous Brothers, Peter and Gordon, The Byrds, The Mama and the Papas, The Doors, James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, The Jackson 5 and many, many more.

Unlike a lot of the variety shows on TV, Sullivan wanted his musical acts to perform live, not just lip-synch. That led to some interesting disagreements with lyrics deemed questionable for TV when the Rolling Stones and The Doors appeared, as most boomers recall. Sullivan also featured classical music, opera, jazz, dance, jugglers, comedians and a crazy little puppet mouse, Topo Gigio, that was a favorite of Mister Boomer’s grandmother … And that is the story of The Ed Sullivan Show in a nutshell, that the show was popular with every member of the family because Sullivan booked acts that could please everyone.

Texaco Star Theater (1948-56)
This comedy-variety show started out as a radio show in 1938. Like Ed Sullivan, the show had a series of guest hosts, but when Milton Berle hosted, the show’s ratings skyrocketed and he was made the permanent emcee. Texaco Star Theater is best remembered as the show that earned Berle his “Mr. Television” nickname.

The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55)
A show with “comedy” in its name should have the best comedians of the day, and this show did. Hosts included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among others. As a musical-variety show, hosts also included Donald O’Conner, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and a bevy of stars our parents remember better than boomers do. Like Texaco Star Theater, a single sponsor — Colgate — commanded the commercials throughout the program. Commercials were performed live like other shows, often by the stars themselves.

Your Show of Shows (1950-54)
More than just another variety show, some say this one was the most influential of them all. Featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the show had a writing pool of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. It was the first show to feature an ongoing comedy sketch, “The Hickenloopers.” Some say every comedy show that followed owed a debt to Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner stated that The Dick Van Dyke Show was inspired by the show.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57)
Featuring the first African-American TV series host, the show aired without a sponsor. Advertisers feared they would upset their customers in the South, so NBC aired it anyway, footing the bill. Nat King Cole was an immensely popular singer, but 1950s white America wasn’t at all sure they wanted to see a black man host a TV show. The star ended the show himself in its second season, when no sponsor could be found.

Mister Boomer remembers his family tuning in as Mr. Cole opened each show at his piano, singing a song.

Of course, there were many other variety shows aired in the first complete decade of the Baby Boom. Families gathered around the TV each week to laugh, be entertained and maybe get a little highbrow culture as the flickering black and white images of our boomer youth appeared on a tiny screen.

Were you old enough to watch variety shows in the 1950s, boomers? Which were your family’s favorites?

Next up: Variety Shows in the 1960s

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)

Boomers Lose a Giant Voice of Their Cartoon Youth

Word came this week of the passing of June Foray, a true giant in the world of cartoon voices. She was 99 years old, but forever young in the hearts and minds of boomers everywhere. Boomers may not have recognized her face — or her name — but surely knew her many voices.

Born in 1917, Ms. Foray began doing voice work by age 12 for local radio dramas in Springfield, Massachusetts. From the 1920s through the ’50s she voiced characters on a multitude of radio shows, including The Jimmy Durante Show and Smile Time with Steve Allen. She recorded several children’s albums with Capitol Records, where she met Stan Freeburg, and went on to record several comedy albums with Freeburg before appearing on The Stan Freeburg Show on radio (1957-58).

Her “foray” into animation began when she was called by Walt Disney Studios to voice a cat character, and was hired to voice Lucifer the cat in Cinderella (1950). That’s when boomers started getting acquainted with her many voices. She continued to work for Disney in uncredited roles until 1952, when she voiced Hazel the witch for a Donald Duck Trick or Treat short. Witch Hazel then became a regular character on Looney Tunes, starting with a Bugs Bunny episode in 1956. She was the voice of Granny — the owner of Tweety bird — on Sylvester and Tweety cartoons from 1955 to 2013.

Her credits sound like a Who’s Who of top boomer cartoons, films and TV shows, including vocal performances in Tom and Jerry cartoons (1965), The Road Runner as various characters (1966), George of the Jungle (1967), The Pink Panther Show (1969) and hundreds more that boomers would recognize. In 1966 her voice was uncredited in the How the Grinch Stole Christmas! TV special. She even appeared in person on popular TV shows of the boomer era, including 12 O’Clock High (1965), It’s About Time (1966), and Green Acres (1967), and lent her voice to many more, including Bewitched (1966), Lost in Space (1967) and hundreds of other shows and animations up to 2014.

Yet for Mister Boomer, her work on the many iterations of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-70) were what made him a big fan. Among those famous voices were Rocky (Rocket J. Squirrel), Rocky’s nemesis Natasha Fatale, and Nell in Dudley Do-Right. She also appeared as numerous characters in Fractured Fairy Tales, another reason all the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon shows are at the top of the list for Mister B. Witty dialogue and puns galore, delivered by classic cartoon voice artists like June Foray, Daws Butler, Hans Conried and a host of others, had Mister Boomer’s family tuning in to laugh every week. The show was second only to The Road Runner for Mister B’s father. His mother preferred June Foray’s Granny.

June Foray is credited with the idea for the Annie Awards to honor the year’s best animations. The first Annies were given out at a dinner in1972. She was the the strongest proponent of creating a category for animation at the Academy Awards, and after twenty years of lobbying, saw the first Oscars for animation awarded in 2001 (Shrek won that year). Mister Boomer expects a memorable send-off by the Academy for Ms. Foray next year.

It’s hard to imagine cartoons of the boomer era without some of the giants of the medium, and June Foray was among the very best. What memories do you have of June Foray characters, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,TV and have Comment (1)

Holy Schnikies, Batman is Gone!

Our boomer flags were lowered to half staff this week with the passing of Adam West. He was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington, but for boomers, he was and always will be, Batman.

Anderson’s mother moved him to Seattle after divorcing his father when he was 14, but he went back to Walla Walla after high school to attend Whitman College. After graduating with a degree in literature, he worked a variety of jobs, including as a radio DJ, before doing post-graduate studies at Stanford University.

When he was drafted into the Army, he worked as an announcer for American Forces Network television and was part of a team tasked to create TV studios for the military, first in California, then in New Jersey.

After leaving the army in 1954, an old friend from Walla Walla, Carl Hebenstreit, suggested he move to Hawaii. There, Hebenstreit was hosting a local children’s TV series called The Kini Popo Show with a chimpanzee as his co-host. Anderson got his first acting job when he signed on as a sidekick, and later replaced Hebenstreit as the host. He had never studied acting.

The same year he worked in Hawaii, he appeared in a series of roles on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His first movie role arrived in 1957’s Voodoo Island, though his role was uncredited. After moving to Los Angeles in 1959 he changed his name to Adam West and quickly landed a contract with Warner Bros. There, he appeared in his first credited film, The Young Philadelphians (1959,) along with Paul Newman, Barbara Rush, Brian Keith and Robert Vaughn. A series of Western roles followed, and a slew of television appearances that reads like a Who’s Who of popular boomer TV shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Laramie, Gunsmoke, Bewitched, Maverick, The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction and The Virginian, to name a few.

As a spokesperson for Nestle’s Quik in 1965, he had more than 70 roles to his credit. Casting agents saw him in a commercial and he became Bruce Wayne/Batman on the Batman television series (1966-68). His campy, deadpan delivery as Batman was the perfect nonsense to appear in a cultural landscape that was increasingly chaotic. The Generation Gap was widening between early boomers and their parents’ generation as the Vietnam War escalated to produce the beginning of the protest movement.

Mister Boomer was a teenager when the series began. He enjoyed the pun-filled dialogue, big star appearances and the tongue-in-cheek nod to comic books with OOF! BLAM! and POW! spinning onto the screen during the inevitable fight sequences. It would be a decade later before Mister Boomer saw the show in color, at which time he saw that the brightness of the colorful sets were clearly designed with comic books in mind. His whole family enjoyed watching Batman, but it was his sister who would walk around the house singing, Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da…Batman!

There may not be a boomer anywhere who didn’t enjoy some portion of what was clearly a ridiculous portrayal of the Dark Knight. Right from the start the show brought in big stars as villains; Burgess Meredith was the Penguin, Cesar Romero was the Joker, Frank Gorshin was the Riddler, Vincent Price was Egghead, and Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman. By the second season stars asked to be on the show. The list of stars looking to act alongside Adam West is long and impressive. (See Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da … Guest Star!)

After the show ended in 1968, West was typecast and could not find work. It was two years before he was able to land a role on TV’s The Big Valley. After that he picked up where he left off before becoming Batman, making more than 80 appearances on TV shows and in movies. Boomers recognized his later cartoon voiceover work in SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons and The Family Guy.

Adam West had an accomplished career in movies and television without his role as Batman, but would boomers everywhere remember his name and mourn his passing as they are now if he didn’t don those ill-fitting tights?

What roles do you remember Adam West in, boomers? Were you a fan of the Batman series?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,Pop Culture History,TV and have Comments (2)

Boomers: Different Through Shared Experiences

Three items crossed the news desk at Mister Boomer headquarters this week that have direct connections to our boomer community. One is old news, one is recent, and one just happened this week. The juxtaposition of the three illustrate the expanse of the boomer generation and differences from early-to-late boomer tendencies.

Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum
This news is already seven years old. Somehow Mister Boomer may have heard that the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum was closing in 2010, but it didn’t immediately register on the scale of momentous boomer happenings; this is probably due to the fact that the TV and movie cowboy and his wife were never a big presence in Mister Boomer’s mid-era household.

Riding the wave of the popularity of Westerns in the 1930s and ’40s, Leonard Slye (later called Roy Rogers [1911-1998]) appeared in a multitude of western movies on his slow and steady rise, from being part of several bands on recordings and radio, then appearing with bands in movies and moving up to starring roles. Along the way he became a lead performer in a band called the Sons of the Pioneers. The band appeared with him in numerous movies, on records and in TV shows. By 1941, Roy Rogers had appeared in 39 films. The band, with Rogers, had several hits, most notably Tumbling Tumbleweed (1934), Cool Water (1941) and Ghost Riders in the Sky (1948). The songs became classics in the Country-Western genre and indeed, the Sons of the Pioneers released new recordings of them every decade through the 1960s.

Rogers’ first wife, Aline, died in 1946. He met Dale Evans (1912-2001) when the two of them were working the same rodeo in 1947. That year they were married. In 1951, The Roy Rogers Show debuted on TV. His wife, Dale, starred alongside him. Each episode, which centered around a rancher (Rogers) and restaurant owner (Evans), espoused their Christian values of fear of God and love of country. The scripts included ample space for musical numbers, and ended with the duo’s signature song, Happy Trails. The original show ran for six seasons. In 1962, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show appeared as a western comedy and variety show for one season.

Throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, a vast blitz of Roy Rogers merchandising hit the marketplace, including toys, lunch boxes and more. This merchandise held as much interest for early-era boomers as Gene Autry and Davy Crockett items.

After trying to revive their TV career failed in a changing landscape that perceived them as old-fashioned and “square,” the couple retired and moved to the Apple Valley area just north of Los Angeles, California. In 1967, they established the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in nearby Victorville. In 2003, the couple’s children moved the museum to Branson, Missouri. After lagging ticket sales, the museum shut in 2009, with its contents auctioned off in 2010. Among the items sold at auction was Rogers’ trusty horse, Trigger. The horse appeared with him in numerous movie and TV appearances, and became as much a star for early boomers as Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. When Trigger died, Rogers had him stuffed and placed in his museum. Trigger corralled $266,500 at auction. Contents of the museum brought in a total of $2.9 million.

Stanley Weston (1933-2017)
While later-era boomers didn’t know much about Roy Rogers, they knew even less about Stanley Weston. However, most boomer boys born after 1960 knew about Weston’s invention, G.I. Joe. Often called the “Barbie for boys,” Weston knew there was no way his toy would sell if he billed it as a doll for boys. He coined the term, “outfitted action figure,” to describe his poseable figure dressed in military garb. To increase the macho qualities, he gave the figure a scar on his left cheek. He quickly sold the toy to Hasbro for a flat fee of $100,000 in 1964. The original figure was 12-inches tall and could be purchased dressed in the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps.

Weston cleverly saw the opportunity that accessories and different uniforms — like Barbie had shown the year before — could add to the continued sales of his creation. Far from a sure thing in the same year that U.S. soldiers began active fighting in Vietnam, the toy became one of the most successful of all time. The original G.I. Joe had no stated mission, no back story and no named enemies. In contrast, the G.I. Joe sold today is unrecognizable to boomers who had the original toy. The action figures sold today are more muscular — though smaller at nine-and-a-half inches, have a wide variety of weaponry and vehicles available, and are billed as terrorist-fighting men of action. The main adversary of all the ethnic varieties of G.I. Joe is Cobra, a terrorist organization whose goal, like James Bond villains, is to rule the world.

Stanley Weston went on to form a merchandise licensing company, Leisure Concepts. His company represented Farah Fawcett (Charlie’s Angels), Nintendo, the World Wrestling Federation and several TV shows, including Alf and Welcome Back, Kotter. He was inducted into the Licensing Industry Hall of Fame in 1989. Weston was also part of the team that created the popular ThunderCats TV cartoons.

Gregg Allman (1947-2017)
News arrived this week of the death of fellow boomer Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. The singer, guitarist and keyboardist had his mind set on medical school when his brother, Duane, convinced him to join his band on tour in 1969. Allman agreed to a two-year stint, but continued for the next forty years. The band helped define Southern Rock with their own blend of blues, rock and country.

In October of 1971, his older brother, Duane, died in a motorcycle accident. Four months later, in February 1972, the band returned to touring. By then the band had several hits, including Melissa and Whipping Post, both written by Gregg Allman.

Gregg Allman, already a household name among the majority of boomers before 1970, watched his celebrity kick up a notch when he married Cher in June of 1975. The marriage lasted three years. In total, Allman was married six times, producing four children from different mothers.

In 1995 the Allmann Brothers Band was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and granted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 2012.

His addition to heroin and abuse of alcohol and cocaine sent him to rehab 11 times until he became sober in 1995. By then his drug abuse contributed to liver cancer, diagnosed in 2008. He had an unsuccessful liver transplant in 2010. Despite growing health issues, he continued to tour with the latest incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band. His last live performance was in July of 2016.

Mister Boomer’s involvement with the work of the three men had been fleeting. He would have been too young to remember reruns of the first Roy Rogers Show, and his family was more of a Hollywood Palace watching family than the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show. Mister B also did not have a G.I. Joe. He was already aged in double-digits when the action figure appeared, though he recalls a neighborhood kid having one. As far as the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman, Mister Boomer heard them on the radio but didn’t like the band enough to merit adding their records to his collection. He did like several of their bluesy tunes, but to this day he owns no Allman Brothers vinyl, and only one Gregg Allman song appears in his electronic music collection: Whipping Post.

How about you, boomers? Did you have a Roy Rogers lunch box, a Trigger toy horse, or a G.I. Joe? Did you go to an Allman Brothers concert or own their hits on vinyl?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,Pop Culture History,Toys,TV and have Comment (1)

Boomers Will Take Women’s Names in Beatles’ Songs on the White Album for $200, Alex

Mister Boomer has been a fan of the TV game show, Jeopardy, for several decades, from the time Art Fleming hosted and on to Alex Trebek. However, his schedule doesn’t permit him to watch it much these days. One of the things he always thought would be fun would be to be able to compose a category for the game board. Having given it some thought for years, Mister B knows exactly what he would do, should Alex Trebeck call and give him the chance: his category would be Women’s Names Mentioned on the Beatles’ White Album (1968).

The Beatles sang about various women, both real and fictional, from their very origins and all through their recordings. In the early days they covered popular rock ‘n roll songs that named (Miss) Lizzy, (Long Tall) Sally, Lucille and many others. Then each of their albums named women in their own songs, if not in the titles themselves. There was Anna (Please Please Me, 1963) and Eleanor Rigby (Revolver, 1966); Lucy (in the sky with diamonds, no less; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967), and that French babe, Michelle (Rubber Soul, 1965); Rita (a lovely meter maid; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) and Loretta (who apparently had better get back; Let It Be, 1970), to name but a few. Yet there was not an album release that held such a preponderance of women’s names in it until The Beatles, aka The White Album.

Astute Beatles mavens on the Internet mention more women’s names on that double album with the white cover than any other Beatles album, so it must be true! That provides plenty of material to compose a Jeopardy category for Mister B, which might go something like this:

Jeopardy Contestant: “I’ll take ‘Women Named on The Beatles White Album’ for $200, Alex.”
Alex Trebeck: “And the answer is, ‘Her name was Magill, she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as …’ ”
Contestant: “Who is Nancy?”
Alex: “Correct! From the song, Rocky Raccoon. You have control of the board.”
Contestant: “Same category for $600, Alex.”
Alex: “And it’s the Daily Double!”
Contestant: “I’ll make it a true Daily Double.”
Alex: “The answer is, ‘She was Mia Farrow’s sister, who was visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi the same time as the Fab Four in 1968, where they summoned her to ‘come out to play.’ ”
Contestant: “Who was Julia?”
Alex: “Ooh, I’m sorry, that is incorrect. The answer is ‘Who is Prudence?’ from the song, Dear Prudence. That brings you back to zero. We’ll be right back after these commercial messages.”

Other women named on the album include:

• the aforementioned Julia (Julia)
• Martha (Martha My Dear)
• Sadie (Sexy Sadie)
• Molly (singer of Desmond and Molly Jones fame, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da)
• Honey (Honey Pie, though a term of endearment rather than a direct woman’s name, Mister B liked Honey as a name since he was a fan of Honey West)

In doing research for this post, Mister Boomer found several references to using Beatles songs as inspiration for naming babies. Mister Boomer has to confess that he has never met a Sadie (sexy or otherwise) or even a Prudence. Each era has its own list of popular names, and cultural background plays a large role in naming, too. That is why you see a lot of boomers named Robert, Michael, Lisa and Susan, yet their children received names like Joshua, Jason, Jennifer and Jessica; indeed a person’s decade of birth can often be identified by their name. Yet if the assertion is true, then boomers continued naming their children with names that would have been popular in the boomer era and earlier. How traditional, man!

How about it, boomers? Would you create a Jeopardy category based on any Beatles songs? Do you have any connection to women’s names mentioned on The White Album? Have you, or have you known anyone who used Beatles songs as inspiration in naming their children?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Music,Pop Culture History,TV and have Comments Off on Boomers Will Take Women’s Names in Beatles’ Songs on the White Album for $200, Alex

Boomers Remember Uncle Charley

One morning this week Mister Boomer was heading to work. It looked like, as Paul McCartney might say, “just another day.” But nearing the end of his commute to his office, a ripple altered the wavelength of space-time. A man walked passed Mister B, just as zillions of people pass each other every day. Only this time the first sight of this man stopped Mister B in his tracks. Involuntarily, he found himself half-whispering, “Uncle Charley!”

Now, Mister Boomer does have an Uncle Charlie living in another state, but this man looked nothing like him. Rather, this man was a dead ringer for the actor who played Uncle Charley on My Three Sons — William Demarest!

The brain is a wondrous bowl of gelatinous magic. It stores our boomer memories in neat little rows; oft-needed memories are close at hand, but others, those we rarely access or haven’t thought about in years, reside in the back rooms, like dusty volumes in a library’s stacks. The shock of seeing “Uncle Charley” was like the exact Dewy-decimal card jumping out of long wooden drawers and into his hands. A librarian took the card and, in a flash, visited the stacks, found the volume, blew the dust off the top and spine, and delivered it to Mister B. All that happened in the split second he was suspended in his forward motion at the sight of a man who reminded him of a character who hadn’t been top-of-mind in years. What else could Mister Boomer think of this encounter, other than it was a sign to write about Uncle Charley and My Three Sons?

While Father Knows Best (1954-60), I Love Lucy (1951-57), Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) pictured two-parent families, My Three Sons (1960-72) was a sitcom that centered around a widowed man named Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) who was raising his three sons — Robbie (Don Grady), Mike (Tim Considine) and Chip (Stanley Livingston) with the help of his father-in-law (William Frawley, who boomers will remember as Ed Mertz on I Love Lucy). The show’s single-dad theme (plus precocious kids and a hoot of a character housekeeper/nanny) was later adapted by sitcoms of the late sixties into the ’70s like Petticoat Junction (1963-70), Family Affair (1966-71), Nanny and the Professor (1970-71), The Tony Randall Show (1976-78), and Diff’rent Strokes (1978-86), to name a few.

The show explored the trials and tribulations of single-parenthood from the male perspective. It was a revolutionary idea in 1960 that a man might be able to raise a family without a wife, because a family without women meant chaos. Indeed, with aerodynamics engineer Steve Douglas always away for work, domestic help was needed in the form of Bub O’Casey (William Frawley). When Frawley became seriously ill in 1965, his character was replaced by the brother of Frawley’s character, “Uncle Charley O’Casey” (William Demarest). Stereotypical portrayals of clumsy men working the domestic arena formed a foundation of My Three Sons humor.

Charley was a retired sea captain, a crusty curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Demarest looked every bit the part of a salty dog with his rough exterior. It was the type of role he was used to playing in his career. Demarest started out in Vaudeville and appeared in some of the very first talking films. He appeared in more than 100 films, including The Jazz Singer (1927) and also The Jolsen Story (1946), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

In My Three Sons, Uncle Charley could be the font of wisdom on occasion, but mostly he was comic relief. He was the guy pictured ironing shirts while wearing a frilly apron, or cooking a meal like he was still onboard a ship. His movie-tough guy delivery and school-of-hard-knocks mannerisms made him the perfect cap in an all-male household.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbdtnSDAHk8ss

The series underwent several cast changes in its 12-year run. The first was Demarest replacing William Frawley. The show sent Frawley packing by having his character head back to Ireland. Next, Tim Considine, who had been a child actor with Disney, decided he wanted more time to act in films, pursue his love of auto racing and he also wanted to try his hand at directing. The show’s producers wouldn’t accommodate him, so he left in 1965. The series explained his absence by having his character, Mike, get married and move away. His character married his fiancee Sally (Meredith MacCrae, who went on to join the cast of Petticoat Junction).

After Mike moved away, the show was in need of a third son. They found the character in the guise of Ernie, who already regularly appeared on the show. The storyline had Ernie as a next-door neighbor and Chip’s classmate. Ernie was a foster child, but his foster parents were transferred to a job out of the country, so Steve Douglas adopted Ernie and he became the new third son. In real life, Barry Livingston (Ernie) was Stanley Livingston’s (Chip) brother.

In 1967 Robbie (Don Grady) married his girlfriend Katie (Tina Cole) who had previously been written into several episodes, then in 1969 dad Steve (Fred MacMurray) remarried, taking widow Barbara Harper Douglas (Beverly Garland) as his bride. Mister B has read that, ten seasons into its run by then, a lot of people thought the show jumped the shark when good old dad remarried.

Mister Boomer can recall and recite lines from many sitcoms of the 1960s. However, My Three Sons is not one of them. His family did watch it on their black & white TV, but Mister B doesn’t remember much at all about that show other than the great cartoon-sneaker opening and recognizable theme song. That is what made it so remarkable that a visualization of “Uncle Charley” should rocket the memory of a character from a show that aired fifty years ago into his consciousness.

How about you, boomers? Do you recall Uncle Charley and My Three Sons?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)