In one sense, we live in a golden age of television sitcom history. We can buy remastered DVDs of most of the famous and long-running shows in handsome box sets. A few that haven’t made it to box nirvana, like The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, can be found in good shape on certain channels like Me TV and Antenna TV.
Many shows can never be properly gathered because they were broadcast live and exist only as scattered kinescopes. Such is the case with Mary Kay and Johnny (1947-50), for example, which aired live on DuMont before briefly skipping to CBS and NBC.
Real married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns played “themselves”. They shared the same bed, evidently because it was too early in the medium for censors to know better, and writers even incorporated Mary Kay’s pregnancy into the story. The birth of their son in late 1948 anticipated the Ricardos’ blessed event on I Love Lucy by several years. Most of Mary Kay and Johnny‘s approximately 300 episodes are long gone, so we can’t even whistle for them.
But I’m never satisfied. Many of us have a private list of shows we’d like to see again – or for the first time. Here’s my list of ten sitcoms I’ve mostly just heard of, in chronological order. The majority didn’t last more than a season. Maybe they’ll never be available unless I track them down in a museum like the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles. We can dream.
1. Meet Millie (CBS, 1952-56)
Of all titles on this list, the disappearance of this one bewilders me the most. Not only was Meet Millie a popular show that ran four seasons, but syndicated repeats were run into the ground through the 1960s.
This show is important for many reasons. The least important is that it’s an early series filmed before a live audience at Television City in Los Angeles. Another important reason is that Meet Milly was an early “working girl” show focused on a single woman who earns her daily bread as a secretary – and she’s not a scatter-brained screwball. Or, as the announcer put it, “A gay new comedy about the life and loves of a secretary in Manhattan.” That makes Meet Milly a forerunner to That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You’d think that alone would attract today’s scholars and fans.
Millie Bronson was played by Elena Verdugo, which means this is also the first US series starring a Latina actress. Perhaps people have forgotten this point because she wasn’t playing Latina, but instead, her character was a wise-cracking Brooklynite who lived in Jackson Heights with her mom (Florence Halop), Meet Milly‘s arguably cross-ethnic casting makes another point of social interest.
On the evidence of a clip I saw long ago on a CBS nostalgia-fest, the show’s sense of humor also anticipates the urban slickness of the 1970s. A regular friend, played by Marvin Kaplan, casually mentions, “My father hates my guts.” Millie’s mom says she’s sure he doesn’t hate “his own flesh and blood.” Marvin responds, “No, he doesn’t hate his own. He hates mine.” That’s sharper than we expect.
Meet Millie was one of several projects that successfully transitioned from radio, where it had run on CBS from 1951 to 1954. Audrey Totter played the radio’s Millie, with Bea Benadaret as her mom, and both eventually were replaced by their TV usurpers. Where is this TV show now?
2. Our Miss Brooks (CBS, 1952-56)
If you’re feeling a case of déjà vu (or déjà desi-lu), you may recognize Our Miss Brooks as the other pioneering “working girl” sitcom of its decade. This show also transitioned from radio, mostly with the same cast. Eve Arden’s portrayal of high school English teacher Connie Brooks made her a beloved figure, especially among teachers. They liked the fact that she took her job seriously and competently – and she wasn’t scatterbrained.
Miss Brooks was ready with sympathy and a wisecrack as she guided her students, led by squeaky-voiced Walter Denton (Richard Crenna). She navigated the choppy waters generated by Principal Osgood Conklin, played by eternal blustery foil Gale Gordon, and she pined for the attention of biology teacher Philip Boynton (Robert Rockwell).
Desilu filmed Our Miss Brooks for four popular seasons. Other Desilu hits, like I Love Lucy and The Untouchables, are faithfully preserved on DVD sets. Where is Miss Brooks?
3. The Halls of Ivy (CBS, 1954-55)
If it sounds like many sitcoms starred real-life married couples, you have no idea. This could be the subject of an article by itself, as could the topic of radio-to-television transitions. Here’s yet another example of both.
Acclaimed actor Ronald Colman, who won an Academy Award for George Cuckor’s 1947 film-noir, A Double Life, played William Todhunter Hall, the classy yet personable president of Ivy College somewhere in the Midwest. His wife Victoria (Benita Hume) had been an English actress, so her personality was the opposite of stuffy.
This real-life couple first became radio favorites as neighbors on The Jack Benny Program. Their popularity encouraged writer Don Quinn (of Fibber McGee and Molly fame) to create The Halls of Ivy as a 1950-52 radio series, for which it won a Peabody Award. Years later, many of the same scripts were adapted for the television version.
Herb Butterfield reprised his radio role of Clarence Wellman, chairman of the trustees. The Hunters’ TV housekeeper, Alice, was played by that eternal player of housekeepers, Mary Wickes. Professor Merriwether was Ray Collins, soon known as Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason.
The frequent directors were two Hollywood heavyweights: William Cameron Menzies, the first Oscar-winning art director, and Norman Z. McLeod, whose work in comedy embraces everyone from the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields to Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. The Halls of Ivy is another series where random episodes float in the public domain heck, and others may no longer exist. Somebody needs to find out, please.
4. Mr. Adams and Eve (CBS, 1957-58)
The trials and tribulations of a married couple who are also movie stars was the concept behind all 66 episodes of this two-season series. Mr. Adams and Eve employed a kind of “meta” humor about the difference between acting and private life.
Who better to play Eve and Howard Adams than a married couple who were movie stars Ida Lupino and Howard Duff? To make it even cozier, Mr. Adams and Eve was created and produced by Lupino’s previous husband, Collier Young, for Four Star Productions. Lupino was one of the four stars who owned the company.
Hayden Rorke, whom most recall as Col. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie, played the couple’s agent, Steve. The future Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed, played their tiresome studio boss, J.B. Hafter. Olive Carey played Elsie, the no-nonsense maid because every home that can afford a maid needs one. The great character player Lee Patrick was Connie Drake, Eve’s mom.
Lupino was Emmy-nominated for both seasons. Composer David Rose is most famous for Bonanza in a diverse and prolific career. Mr. Adams and Eve is among many shows with random episodes scattered across YouTube. That’s not good enough.
5. Mrs. G Goes to College (CBS, 1961-62)
Also called The Gertrude Berg Show, this series heralded the return of one of the titans of radio and early television: Gertrude Berg, who created, wrote, produced, and starred in the radio and television versions of The Goldbergs. She was similarly in charge of this new one-season wonder, made with her son Cherney Berg.
Whereas Molly Goldberg had been getting her psychology degree at night school, Berg’s new character, Sarah Green, decided to major in psychology as a widow. She moved into a boardinghouse run by Winona Maxfield (hello again, Mary Wickes). Sarah was sometimes visited by her grown daughter Susan (Marion Ross), and locked horns with Professor Crayton (Cedric Hardwicke), who was both a professor of English and literally an English professor.
Mrs. G Goes to College‘s premiere episode or pilot was included as an extra in the DVD box set of all existing episodes of The Goldbergs. Please seek out that box for a powerful slice of early TV. How’s this for trivia? To promote Mrs. G Goes to College, Berg’s Aunt Sarah appeared as a guest in a crossover episode of Jackie Cooper’s naval comedy Hennessey on 30 October 1961. That series is just as obscure today, although it ran for three years.
6 & 7. Captain Nice (NBC) and Mr. Terrific (CBS), 1967
It makes sense to lump these two shows together. Not only are they almost the same show, they even aired on the same dates in 1967: 9 January to 28 August. At least they had different time slots.
In the wave of spoofy and campy shows like Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Munsters, and especially Batman, two different brain trusts came up with the idea of a sitcom about ordinary schmoes benighted with superpowers thanks to magical drugs.
On CBS, Mr. Terrific starred the unfortunately non-famous Stephen Strimpell as Stanley Beamish, who turned into a mild-mannered flying hero for one hour thanks to a special pill. John McIver played his boss, and Dick Gautier his roommate. Guests included Luciana Paluzzi, Barrie Chase, Ted Cassidy, Richard Dawson, and Ellen Corby. One of the masters behind this concept was no less than Jack Arnold, the director of many famous Universal monster movies of the 1950s.
The evening’s fun wasn’t over yet for those who switched to NBC. Buck Henry, who co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks, invented Captain Nice, in which mousy Carter Nash (William Daniels) drank a potion to transform into an equally mousy flying hero. Alice Ghostley played his domineering mother, and Ann Prentiss was his meter maid girlfriend, Sgt. Candy Kane.
Guests included Florence Halop, Bob Newhart, Jo Anne Worley, and Charles Grodin. Producer Jay Sandrich is one of the medium’s biggies in a career running from I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show to Get Smart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Cosby Show. The theme was by Vic Mizzy, famous for The Addams Family and Green Acres. As for Buck Henry, soon he’d be scripting Mike Nichols’ 1967 drama, The Graduate. That’s a lot of firepower behind one series.
Wikipedia assures us that both Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific have been issued on DVD – in Germany! The coincidences never stop.
The next spoofy superhero sitcom would be The Greatest American Hero (1981-83), created by Stephen J. Cannell and starring William Katt, Connie Sellecca, and Robert Culp. That one’s been on DVD many times, perhaps because of ’80s nostalgia, so why can’t ’60s sitcoms catch a break?
8. He & She (CBS, 1967-68)
The missing link between The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show is this series starring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss (a real married couple!) as sophisticated young urban couple Dick and Paula Hollister.
Dick was a cartoonist who created a hero called Jetman, which now is turned into a TV series starring the ultra-narcissist Oscar North (Jack Cassidy). Kenneth Mars plays the Hollisters’ neighbor in the next apartment. Benjamin, Prentiss, and Cassidy were all nominated for Emmys.
Chris Hayward and Allan Burns won an Emmy for writing an episode featuring guest stars John Astin and Mariette Hartley. When Burns and James L. Brooks created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they got permission from Leonard Stern, creator of He & She, to use Oscar North as the model for Ted Knight’s portrayal of anchorman Ted Baxter. The above-named Jay Sandrich directed most episodes of both series. And now you know the rest of the story.
9. That’s Life (ABC, 1968-69)
How dearly I yearn to see this one-hour musical comedy starring Robert Morse and E.J. Peaker as freshly married Bobby and Gloria Dickson.
That’s Life‘s episodes are a cascade of guests. In the premiere: Tony Randall, George Burns, Nancy Wilson, and The Turtles. Later: Tim Conway, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, Mahalia Jackson, Shelley Winters, Sid Caesar, Kermit the Frog, Phil Silvers, Liza Minnelli, Paul Lynde, Leslie Uggams, Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Torme, Flip Wilson, Goldie Hawn, Agnes Moorehead, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Stiller & Anne Meara, Chita Rivera, Wally Cox, and Phyllis Diller.
Sound hip enough yet? Creator Marvin Marx was best known as Jackie Gleason’s head writer. Musical clearances probably kill any chances of this show’s video release, but hope springs infernal.
10. My World and Welcome to It (CBS, 1969-70)
Surely one of the most fondly remembered one-season sitcoms, the acclaimed series My World and Welcome to It won Emmys for Best Comedy Series and for its star, William Windom. Then it was canceled.
Windom played John Monroe. Like Dick Hollister in He & She, he was a cartoonist. Was something in the water? The Tab Hunter Show (NBC, 1960-61) also had a cartoonist hero, and Jim Carrey played another in a lost shenanigan from MTM Productions, The Duck Factory (1984). But we digress.
John Monroe was based on James Thurber. He spoke to the camera as he mused on modern family life. He shared this quirk with the heroine of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (NBC, 1965-67), another show inspired by comedy writing, in that case, the popular books authored by Jean Kerr.
The difference that made the difference in My World and Welcome to It is that since Monroe/Thurber was a cartoonist, his remarks led to animated sequences expressing his fantasies. Monroe was on the curmudgeonly side, someone baffled and unsatisfied with the modern world and retreating into Walter Mitty-esque neuroses. We mention Mitty, of course, because he was a famous Thurber creation.
James Monroe represents a sitcom type going back to Ozzie Nelson: the befuddled paterfamilias who pretends to be more in control than he feels. As a child, I remember loving the show for its cartoons, as provided by Depatie-Freleng, the Pink Panther people. Another sign of hipness: an opening score played by electronic Moog pioneers Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause. I await the day somebody digs out a properly remastered incarnation of the forgotten My World and Welcome to It.
Bonus Round: Name Your Poison
I’m stopping arbitrarily at 1970, but I’m curious to know about other people’s fond forgotten sitcoms. Does anyone recall Jack Lemmon and Cynthia Stone (married!) in the well-reviewed That Wonderful Guy (ABC, 1949-50) or Heaven for Betsy (CBS, 1952)? Does anyone recall the live Bonino (NBC, 1953) with Ezio Pinza, Mary Wickes (as the housekeeper!), and Conrad Janis and Van Dyke Parks as children?
What about a radio transplant, The Marriage (NBC, 1954), starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy? This glowingly-reviewed summer show is important as the first prime-time color series.
Does anyone recall such Desilu Productions as The Betty Hutton Show (CBS, 1959-60), or Ray Bolger in Where’s Raymond (ABC, 1953-55)? What about Wally Cox in The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (NBC, 1956-57), a comedy adventure based on Paul Gallico’s novel? Or Barbara Eden in How to Marry a Millionaire (syndicated, 1957-59), based on the movie?
How about Elaine Stritch in My Sister Eileen (CBS, 1960-61), supported by Jack Weston, Rose Marie, Raymond Bailey, Stubby Kaye, Leon Belasco, and Agnes Moorehead? With that cast, who wouldn’t watch? The apparent answer is: most viewers at the time. The series derived from stories by Ruth McKenney that fueled two different plays and two films. That property had legs.
Anyone for Valentine’s Day (ABC, 1964-65) with swinging bachelor Anthony Franciosa and his hip rascal servant Jack Soo? The same network and season saw the star-studded The Bing Crosby Show and George Burns and Connie Stevens in Wendy and Me. Any takers?
Did anyone see Going My Way (ABC, 1962-63), with Gene Kelly and Leo G. Carroll taking over the 1944 film roles of Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald? Or Imogene Coca as a maid named Grindl (NBC, 1963-64)? Or Leonard Stern’s well-reviewed I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (ABC, 1962-63) with John Astin and Marty Ingels?
How about the romantic Love on a Rooftop (ABC, 1966-67) with Pete Duel and Judy Carne, or the short-lived The Jean Arthur Show (CBS, 1966), in which she plays a lawyer? How about the cross-dressing antics, shot in London, of The Ugliest Girl in Town (ABC, 1968-69)? Can it be as bad as they say? How will we know unless we can see it?
Clearly, there’s much to be done in unearthing forgotten Hollywood sitcoms. We have most of the famous ones listed here. Now let the real work begin.