David Nelson: Another Boomer TV Icon Passes On

David Nelson, the last remaining member of the Nelson family, passed away this week at the age of 74. Boomers will forever remember him for playing the part of himself in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

David Nelson was born in 1936 in New York City. Though he wasn’t a boomer himself, David and brother Ricky figure prominently in the TV memories of the Boomer Generation. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never cracked the top 10 list for viewers, but we watched the brothers on our TV screens for 14 years as they grew from childhood to adulthood, graduated high school and college, got married and started careers.

It all began with David’s father, Ozzie Nelson. A bandleader who appeared on several radio programs in the 1930s, he met and married actress and singer Harriet Nelson (Peggy Lou Snyder) when she became a member of his band. After a successful radio stint on The Red Skelton Show in the early 40s, the Nelsons got their chance to go it alone when Red Skelton was drafted. In 1944 they began broadcasting The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Right from the beginning, the program dealt with the everyday issues of the parents raising their two sons, making it one of the first reality-based programs. Though drawn from real life, Ozzie, who wrote most of the radio and television episodes, gave himself full artistic license. Their two sons — David and Eric (whose nickname was Ricky) — were too young to appear in the program, so actors played the parts of David and Ricky until 1946.

The show made the transition from radio to television in 1952, when Ozzie pitched the idea to ABC. Their real-life sons were brought to viewers playing the parts of themselves. The TV series aired from 1952 to 1966, the prime years of TV viewing for the earliest boomers. The show went on to become the most idealized portrait of the American family of the 1950s.

Before the Nelsons appeared on TV, they starred in a full-length movie called Here Come the Nelsons. Though the boys had earlier appeared on the radio broadcast, this marked the first time David and his brother Ricky would be seen on screen with their parents.

Usually, David portrayed the older, more thoughtful and responsible child while Ricky was the more impetuous one. David often served as the straight man for Ricky to deliver the punchline. Many of the TV episodes centered around the brothers’ grappling with growing up. When Ricky showed signs of having a talent for singing, his father encouraged him by writing more episodes around Ricky singing a song, though some episodes merely had him sing at the end. The growing popularity and longer screen time for Ricky triggered rumors of a sibling rivalry, and that David held some resentment toward his teen-idol little brother. David Nelson himself, however, denied these rumors years later when he stated, “We were 3 1/2 years apart, so when Rick was funny, I laughed with everyone else. And when he became a popular singer, I rooted for him.”

By the time the series ended, David’s character had graduated college and, unlike in his real life, law school. His character began practicing as a lawyer. When he got married in real life in 1961, his first wife, June, was written into the cast. The same was true for his brother, Ricky.

David appeared in 320 of the 435 episodes, and directed three of them. After the series closed, he appeared as an actor in several TV shows and movies, and, like his father before him, became a respected director and producer in his own right.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet wasn’t among the favorites of Mister Boomer’s family. As with most families, there was only one TV in Mister B’s house, and the children watched whatever the parents watched. There, though the show was viewed from time to time, Leave It To Beaver or, better yet, My Three Sons, were the more popular sitcoms.

In September of 1966, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was cancelled. The show that replaced it also looms large in the annals of boomer nostalgia: Batman. But that, as they say, is a story for another time.

What memories do you have of watching David in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?

The Boomer Endangered Species List?

Mister Boomer recently came across some startling statistics that made him think about growing older. We all know the history of what our grandparents and parents witnessed in their lifetimes; yet now, it appears, it’s our turn to look back at things that were but are no longer, or at least may not be much longer.

The biggest example, of course, is the 45 RPM record. It was an invention released during the boomer years, and now doesn’t exist at all. Broadcast TV was in black and white when we were young, but then color broadcasting slowly began to take over. Now, if a movie or TV show is in black and white, it’s either ancient or for art’s sake. There are more examples, to be sure.

The startling news Mister Boomer came across, however, had to do with bowling. Truth be told, not many of us have given the sport that much thought through the years. It was something that always appeared to be there, from our early days on through. It was a regular part of our cultural lexicon. Ozzie Nelson went bowling (without his tie, no less!). Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were on a bowling team in a league. So were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Bowling was just something the working class did. We even had a TV show called “Bowling for Dollars.”

Fred and Barney mix bowling with a commercial in the days before Flintstones vitamins.

This Brunswick commercial from 1961 shows how bowling had been advertised as a wholesome pursuit for boomers.

Mister Boomer did not join in any youth leagues during his Wonder Years, but his brother did. As a result, Mister Boomer often accompanied his brother to the local lanes where he went to practice. Mister Boomer was never a great bowler, but there was one day when the bowling gods smiled on his lane. Brother Boomer was a pretty good bowler, but on this particular Sunday, the strikes were flying. Eager for a second game, Brother B began with a strike. Mister Boomer stepped up and aimed at the pins. He released the black rubber ball and, after the familiar roll-rumble for a couple of seconds, watched as all the pins crashed down. Brother Boomer stepped up and rolled a second strike. Mister Boomer did the same. A third strike followed for his brother, and another for Mister Boomer. By this time, a small crowd had started to appear behind the boys. In the fourth frame, Mister Boomer’s brother smashed the pins like it was an everyday occurrence, much to the delight of the viewing gallery. Getting nervous from the onlookers, Mister Boomer took his time and did his best to concentrate. Boom! Four strikes in a row! Both Boomer Brothers were tied, but alas, it was not to be for Mister B. His streak ended at four, a personal best to this day. His brother, however, went on to number five, then six, then seven! The crowd went wild! But in the eighth frame, their glee subsided as he missed a strike by three pins. The crowd dissipated as the brothers finished their games.

Now there is news that bowling alleys that once took in 70+ percent of their revenue from league play have seen that revenue reduced to around 40 percent. In general, bowling attendance has dropped below that of previous decades. That explains the transformation of the “bowling alley” of our era to the “family fun center” that it is today. In Mister Boomer’s area, the bowling centers have gone so far as to drop the word “bowling” from their names altogether, though a couple still retain “bowl.” Most have gone upscale, with gourmet foods, redesigned interiors and prices to match. Those that have targeted families have been forced to present their venues as the ultimate place for children’s parties. One has to believe that Ozzie Nelson — family man that he was — might approve, but Ralph, Ed, Fred and Barney might prefer their bowling experience to be the male bonding experience they had enjoyed — without their wives and children.

It remains to be seen if the final chapters are being written on a sport that was so much a part of our youth. Who knows … the boomer generation may yet revive leagues, even if they only exist through a flat screen TV and a Wii console.

How about it, boomers? Do you still go bowling, or have your bowling bag and shoes been relegated to the garage or attic?