Posts Tagged ‘Television History’

Viv and Ethel (and Always Lucy)

Friday, July 24th, 2009
Kansas Historical Society

Vivian Vance (Kansas Historical Society)


The woman fellow character actress Mary Wickes called “the best second banana in the business” would have turned 100 on Sunday, July 26. Vivian Vance was born Vivian Roberta Jones in 1909 in Cherryvale, Kansas.


According to biographers Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker, it always bothered Vance that she was inextricably linked in the public mind with frumpy landlady Ethel Mertz in the situation comedy I Love Lucy.


They quote her as saying, “When I die, there will be people who send Ethel flowers. I’ll get to heaven and someone will say, ‘Hi, Ethel! I see you are still in re-runs!’”


They also chronicle her ambivalent relationship with Lucy star Lucille Ball. Ball was at once Vance’s closest friend and a source of resentment. Playing second fiddle doesn’t sit easily on the ego. Never a complete professional success before or after her collaborations with Ball, Vance understandably longed to be a star on her own. She wanted to be free of Lucy and free of Ethel.


If Vance could look back on her career today, however (she died in 1979), history might show her the value of her work. I Love Lucy paved the way for almost all television comedies that followed it, both in terms of technique and in terms of narrative.


It also gave viewers an eternal model of supportive friendship. Lucy and Ethel were the forerunners of many TV gal pals to come, including the eponymous heroines of Laverne & Shirley, all of Charlie’s Angels, and Cybill and Maryann of Cybill.


When my friend Teri Tynes and I used to drop in on each other across the courtyard of our Austin, Texas, apartment complex, the Casa del Rio, we liked to refer to ourselves as Mary and Rhoda (in homage to the Mary Tyler Moore Show). We could just as easily have called ourselves Lucy and Ethel. Their relationship epitomized the comfort, companionship, and adventurous spirit we felt with each other and sensed in these television comrades.


One of Vivian Vance’s frustrations was that she was often called upon to react in I Love Lucy rather than to act. It was Ethel’s grimacing face that told us that Lucy was about to do something outrageous, Ethel’s careful listening that gave Lucy a chance to expound on her latest scheme.


Reaction is a large part of friendship—and a large part of great acting. So on this anniversary of Vivian Vance’s birth let’s give second bananas everywhere their due. By the time the banana bread comes out of the oven no one can tell where the first banana left off and the second banana took over. (I can’t figure out what to do with the third banana in this metaphor. William Frawley, anyone?)






Second Banana Bread


This recipe comes from another Lucy/Ethel Mary/Rhoda friend, my graduate-school housemate Sara Stone. Sara is probably the most generous person I know. In the last year of my doctoral program I was convinced I had only a couple of weeks to go on my dissertation. Sara invited me to stay with her until it was finished. It took NINE MONTHS! Sara never complained; she just gave me unconditional support and shelter (not to mention grocery money). And she can cook, too! We all need friends like Sara.


Of course, I’m still not entirely sure which of us was Lucy and which Ethel.




1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup ripe mashed bananas (about 3 bananas)
2 eggs
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)




Grease a standard loaf pan. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.


In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Stir in the bananas, and then beat in the eggs. Beat in the baking soda and salt; then gently stir the flour into the butter mixture. Add the pecans if desired.


Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out dry. (Sara likes her bread a bit mushier than this, but my family likes it firm.) In my oven I tend to bake it for an hour, then turn off the oven and leave it for another 15 minutes or so—but by all means test your bread and YOUR oven.


Cool the loaf on a rack for 20 minutes; then release it onto the rack to finish cooling.


Makes 1 loaf.




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Note from Tinky in 2010: Vivian Vance fans should check out this article about a Vivian Vance archive (including wonderful photos).  Enjoy…….


And Lucy lovers may be interested in my take on the end of I Love Lucy.


A Salute to the Hidden Harriet

Friday, July 17th, 2009
Harriet Hilliard Nelson (Courtesy of

Harriet Hilliard Nelson (Courtesy of


Tomorrow the matriarch of “America’s favorite family” would have turned 100.


Born Peggy Lou Snyder on July 18, 1909, Harriet Hilliard Nelson grew up in a theatrical family that used the name Hilliard (definitely classier than Snyder!). She worked as a chorus dancer and an actress before trying her hand as a singer and nightclub mistress of ceremonies. In 1932 she started singing with bandleader Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra, beginning a professional and personal partnership that would last until Ozzie’s death in 1975. (Harriet herself died in 1994.)


In the 1930s Harriet still worked solo from time to time. Her biggest role came in the 1936 Astaire-Rogers film Follow the Fleet, playing the romantic second lead opposite Randolph Scott. One can glimpse the singer she was—and the actress she might have become—in that film, where she is attractive and has a sultry if smallish voice.


Increasingly, however, she worked only with Ozzie. After the birth of their two children, David (in 1936) and Eric (known as Ricky and later Rick, in 1940), the couple began performing on the radio. This medium enabled Ozzie and Harriet to maintain a more stable home life than nightclub work could offer.


They launched their signature radio program, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, in 1944. The program allegedly followed the real-life story of the couple and their sons. The latter were played on the radio by actors. When the Adventures expanded to television in 1952, David and Ricky were brought in to portray themselves.


The televised Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet became one of the best known American situation comedies of the 1950s and 1960s. The program is sometimes irritating to view today. (I had to watch A LOT of episodes while doing research for my dissertation so I should know!) Like Ozzie’s rather bland orchestra, it tended, in the words of one critic, to “[border] very much on the Babbitt.”


By the time they hit television Ozzie and Harriet were primarily actors rather than musicians, although they sang in a few episodes. Young Rick sang increasingly beginning in 1959, when under his father’s watchful eye he became a recording star.


Even after Rick emerged as a singing sensation the major emphasis of the television program was on family life—specifically on the dilemmas of males, both grown up (Ozzie) and growing up (David and Ricky). Ozzie’s character was awash with insecurity. He was never sure he was brave enough, strong enough, or rugged enough— in short, masculine enough. In the final analysis, then, the only character in the program who seemed like a true grown up was Harriet.


Although her character was allowed occasional wisecracks, she generally represented reason and stability. Harriet Nelson played this character with grace and a certain amount of charm, but I frequently find myself wondering what the televised Harriet might have been like freed of Ozzie and the boys.


The same question comes to mind about the offscreen Harriet Nelson. She was portrayed in magazines and newspapers of the 1950s as a quiet homemaker who viewed her work on the family’s show as an old-fashioned pre-industrial cottage industry, a suitable accompaniment to her collection of early-American antiques. Nevertheless, no true personality peeks out of those pages.


Ozzie was described in the press as an efficient producer and director of the show; one can sense the iron hand with which he ruled the family as well as the program. The younger Nelsons were described as fairly normal boys who just happened to be the stars of a television show. While this was undoubtedly an exaggeration, they had definite personalities. The “real” Harriet disappeared from press coverage, however, just as her earlier vivacity disappeared from the television program. Behind the pretty smile and the smooth, tailored dresses lurked an enigma.


I hope the Harriet we never really knew managed to enjoy herself. I like to think that her on- and offscreen rationality and blandness camouflaged a busy, happy existence.


In any case, I use the recipe below to salute her competence as an actress and her status as one of America’s best known television personalities. (A 1965 New Yorker cartoon celebrated the Nelsons’ iconic status; in it a TV-watching wife tells her husband, “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll try to be more like Harriet if you’ll try to be more like Ozzie.”)


The recipe was inspired by the episode “Pancake Mix” in the televised Adventures’ first season. In this half hour Harriet tries a new product, Hasty Tasty Pancake Mix. The Irrepressible Ricky (as he was often called by the program’s announcer) tries to get rich by exploiting the promise of the Hasty Tasty company to refund twice the purchase price of its product if the mix doesn’t make the finest pancakes the eater has ever tasted.


Ricky learns his lesson (sort of) when the pancake-mix president shows up at the Nelson home with a retinue and prepares a batch of pancakes on the spot—adorned with chocolate ice cream, strawberry jam, whipped cream, and a cherry.


Naturally, Ricky declares that these are ABSOLUTELY the finest pancakes he has ever tasted. Mine weren’t bad, either—or so my nephew Michael told me. He ate them with maple syrup. I was careful not to mention the trimmings Ricky enjoyed until after we had finished eating!


Enjoy them—and think of Harriet in her perfectly pressed apron, competently flipping them on her Hotpoint kitchen range….


Courtesy of Kathleen O'Quinn Jacobs


Hasty Tasty Pancake Mix


You may double this recipe easily. In fact, you may make up to EIGHT TIMES as much mix as the recipe suggests; just make sure that it is well mixed together.




1 cup flour
1/4 cup buttermilk powder (in larger grocery stores under “baking needs”)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder




Sift together these ingredients, and whisk them as well to make sure that they are thoroughly combined. Store the mix in an airtight container until it is needed (but not for more than 3 months!).


To make a batch of pancakes: In a bowl whisk together 1 cup water, 1 egg, and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Gently stir in the pancake mix. Do not overmix the batter.


Heat a frying pan or skillet to medium heat (about 375 degrees), and melt a small amount of butter into it. Dollop just under 1/4 cup batter onto the pan for each pancake.


Turn the pancakes after a minute or two, when they are nice and bubbly on the surface and easy to lift; then cook them on the other side. Add a bit more butter as needed to prevent sticking. Remove and serve with butter and warm maple syrup—or ice cream, jam, whipped cream, and a cherry. Each recipe makes about 10 pancakes.


The Irrepressible Michael contemplates a Hasty Tasty Pancake (I think he's ready to utter Ricky's favorite line, "I don't mess around, boy!")

The Irrepressible Michael contemplates a Hasty Tasty Pancake. (I think he's ready to utter Ricky's favorite line, "I don't mess around, boy!")


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