Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Well, actually, it’s this week’s Wildcard entry, because before we’re able to start making best-of lists for The Danny Thomas Show, we need to discuss the series as a whole, and especially touch upon the part of its run that is currently unseen in reruns and nearly impossible to watch in full: the Make Room For Daddy era. I have only found 34 of the 90 episodes produced for the first three seasons (1953-1956), when the show was broadcast in primetime under its original title and featured Jean Hagen as wife to Thomas’ Danny Williams, so I am unable to truly present the best entries from this period. I hope one day all eleven seasons will be formally made available, just like how Seasons Four and Ten/Eleven were recently remastered for COZI TV, but until then, I’m afraid our Sitcom Tuesday focus has to remain on the years with Marjorie Lord, and the preceding transitional season where Danny is a widower raising his two kids. Thankfully, there’s enough out there of the first three years to get a general idea of what the show was like in its earliest iteration, so this post intends to discuss, with brevity, the entirety of the series’ history, while providing some broad thoughts on its place in our study of the sitcom. (Note: I’ll be referring to the series as The Danny Thomas Show, or Danny Thomas, when discussing the later seasons OR the piece as a whole. When I am exclusively discussing the first three years, I’ll use the Make Room For Daddy, or Daddy, title.)
With a premise where a husband and wife are raising two (or three) kids, including some of the finest child actors on TV (Rusty Hamer, Sherry Jackson, and Angela Cartwright), you may be tempted to think of The Danny Thomas Show — and primarily the years called Make Room For Daddy, still used in syndication to refer to the entire series, even though the majority of it debuted under the Danny Thomas moniker — as an example of the ’50s domestic sitcom that we just saw Leave It To Beaver embody. But although Danny Thomas throws many stories to its younger players, who are essential to its structure, there are several reasons why I wouldn’t box this series into the domestic category. Never mind that it’s not centered on the kids — Beaver was a rarity in that regard — the show simply eschews too many of the tropes of the subgenre, including the fact that it’s not set in suburbia, but a cramped Manhattan apartment. There’s no white picket fence, because the lifestyle that Danny and his family lead is not “traditional” in the way that Beaver‘s is: it’s urban. Aesthetically, it’s also different from every other series in this domestic category, because it’s not shot single-camera — it was the first non-Desilu-produced series that their company helped shoot using their filmed, multi-camera, live audience technique developed on I Love Lucy. (This made it the third sitcom of its kind on the air — Our Miss Brooks, produced by Desilu for CBS, was the second.) And as is the case with most shows that have an audience in front of them, the incentive to actually BE FUNNY was therefore greater on Danny Thomas than in any of the other domestic sitcoms of the era, meaning that it IS funnier than all the domestic sitcoms of the era. No question.
Meanwhile, this association with I Love Lucy and Desilu is important — as we’ll see, Danny Thomas was chosen to replace Lucy on the CBS schedule because it was the most similar. But hold that thought. First, another distinction between this series and the domestic genre is that the star, a noted entertainer, is playing a version of himself, and that means, like with Lucy or Burns & Allen or even the wink-wink-nudge-nudge self-promotion of Ozzie & Harriet, there’s a pronounced show biz slant: musical numbers every week, guest stars who come on just to perform, and stories about the world of entertainment. And this brings us to the series’ premise, the very reason it’s NOT just a domestic sitcom: the show is about a man who is torn between his responsibilities at work (as a singer and a comic) and at home (as a husband and a father), as stories take him between both worlds, with the juxtaposing demands of the two creating the series’ central conflict. At least, that’s the intention… There was always a major lean towards the home life (look who’s in the opening credits), and this imbalance becomes more pronounced as the series progresses — when Danny becomes a single father, and then later when he becomes a newlywed — until it basically eliminates its original premise, which had been the engine for story in the Jean Hagen years. Nevertheless, this duality of the personal/professional is always present, never totally gone, because of Danny’s persona, and while this keeps the show from being purely domestic, the accompanying home-slash-work design looks forward to some of the best sitcoms ever produced — including The Dick Van Dyke Show, which influenced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a whole legacy of classics.
This idea of legacy is why I’m devoting time to Danny Thomas. Aside from being a show like Lucy or The Honeymooners that remained a TV staple well after its initial 11-season(!) run — via reunions in 1965, 1967, and 1969, the last of which yielded a single-season spin-off called Make Room For Granddaddy — this show sits at an important spot in the genre’s trajectory: it’s the not-so-missing link between the best comedy of the 1950s, I Love Lucy, and the best comedy of the 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show, sharing similar themes, essential personnel, and, of course, the Desilu multi-cam style, which was carried through to all three shows BECAUSE Danny Thomas remained dedicated to preserving it in an era where single-cams dominated. In fact, this was the only weekly show shooting on film in front of a live audience during the 1958-’59 and 1959-’60 seasons. (While there were other shows staged for three cameras, they were either done live or filmed without an audience, meaning they didn’t take advantage of the “theatre on film for television” quality established by Desilu.) Now, you all know I prefer the multi-cam format because it demands laughs, but more than that, Danny Thomas is the place where we can find the spirit of Lucy until Dick Van Dyke came along — not just in the show business aesthetic or the idea of a clash between the work and the home (which informed the central theme in all three) or even in their evolving takes on urban sophistication, but also through the efforts of many below-the-line crew members, including assistant director Jay Sandrich. And then there’s even MORE of an association between Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke when we remember that Thomas actually produced the latter with Sheldon Leonard, an important creative force on both series — the resident director and eventual producer of Danny Thomas (where he also had a recurring acting role) and the executive producer and occasional director of Dick Van Dyke. Literally then, The Dick Van Dyke Show would not exist without The Danny Thomas Show, just as The Danny Thomas Show owes so much of its identity to Desilu and I Love Lucy.
Yet Dick Van Dyke is not the only series that owes its existence to Danny Thomas. This series had three spin-offs, two from backdoor pilots starring Andy Griffith and Joey Bishop, and then another vehicle tailored for recurring character Jose Jimenez, an iconic figure created by Bill Dana on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, introduced on Thomas’ series in 1961, and given star treatment in 1963. Dana’s show is definitely a time capsule of dubious taste (even by the era’s standards), but The Andy Griffith Show would become one of the 1960s’ most important and beloved comedies, and it’s thanks to Thomas’ television empire that it was born. We’ll talk more about that show when it comes up in a few months. The Joey Bishop Show, meanwhile, started with another show biz work/home premise but actively took on more traits associated with Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke when subsequent seasons gave Bishop a wife, a kid, and a live audience. However, by 1962, such changes to Joey Bishop — subject to its own Wildcard treatment soon — would be done less to emulate the waning Danny Thomas than to match the up-and-coming Dick Van Dyke. This is one of the themes we’ll be exploring in THIS coverage too, for while it’s not so much that a lot of Danny Thomas wound up in Dick Van Dyke (no, Carl Reiner’s vision stood on its own), we’re going to see that it’s actually MORE so that Danny Thomas, just like Joey Bishop, began to resemble Dick Van Dyke. And why not? Dick Van Dyke, like Lucy, is far superior to Danny Thomas, for even though they all have much in common, the character work on those two classics, courtesy of great writers such as Jess Oppenheimer and Reiner, is unlike anything observed here. Yes, Danny Thomas has a strong persona in its star, but it otherwise treats its kids as run-of-the-mill kids, with no unique definition, and uses “his wife” — whether it’s Hagen or Lord — merely as her position in the family and to Danny would suggest. And in the production of true-blue classic half-hours, this show has a handful, but there’s simply no competition. That’s why Lucy and Dick Van Dyke, both of which traded in crossovers with Thomas, are seminal and Danny Thomas is just a link between them.
Fortunately, Danny Thomas — throughout its run — still has more laughs than most shows of the late ’50s, which means it actually does what it’s supposed to do as a comedy, and along the way it packs a lot of surprising humanity, too. Not in the moments where Danny righteously defends the nobility of his profession against a world that doesn’t take him seriously (which happens far too often and is too self-important), but in the regular interactions with characters who, however thinly defined in comparison to those on the best shows of the period, are still played with enough authenticity that they feel like real people. (Certain seasons are better at this than others, and one of the criticisms we’ll see later is that the characters start behaving more like characters; however, there’s always an appealing sincerity that helps liken the show more to Dick Van Dyke than Joey Bishop.) This is a credit to the cast, including the child actors, who, however smart-alecky their lines, instill a truth in them that’s endearing. But a lot of this comes from the text, and it’s there right from the start — in the first season, which was overseen by its creator, Melville Shavelson, a former feature writer who would go on to team with Sheldon Leonard to make one of the most similarly humane comedies of the transitional late ’60s: My World And Welcome To It (discussed here). Shavelson wrote the Daddy pilot, using a premise suggested by Thomas (about how he works so much his kids don’t know him), and stayed on as “story consultant,” a term that essentially meant “headwriter,” for almost all the Hagen years, leaving the last half of Three to the rest of the staff and Leonard, who had joined as a director a few weeks into the run and became the most guiding creative force on the show, wielding more power than any future “story consultant,” including Arthur Stander, who began in Four and left near the end of Seven (thus presiding over the show’s best years and with the longest tenure), and notable scribes like Jack Benny‘s Milt Josefsberg and Sid Caesar‘s Danny Simon, both of whom only stuck around for less than a year each…
The show’s lack of a steady dynamo writer may contrast it unfavorably against Lucy and Dick Van Dyke and have contributed to its inability to reach excellence as routinely, but from my research, despite difficult moments, the set was less volatile than Bishop’s, who was even more temperamental than Thomas, and every season seemed to have a firm, core group providing the bulk of its scripts. We’ll talk more about the Marjorie Lord years when they arrive for full coverage, but of the Hagen seasons, aside from the maintained involvement of Shavelson, One mostly came from the team of Bob Fisher & Alan Lipscott, Two from Mac Benoff and Bob O’Brien & Iz Elinson, and Three from Benoff, Joel Kane, and Henry Garson; this means that every season, looking back, tends to have a consistent feeling unto itself, making the series ideal for analysis here. However, having not seen enough of the Hagen years, it’s hard to track major differences. Oh, I guess I could say that the first year makes more use of the work vs. home premise than any other, but that theme persists throughout the entirety of this era — it’s not until Season Five where it’s dropped. The only big evolution in these initial few seasons is that, at first, the conflicts mostly manifest themselves between Danny and his wife Margaret, played by veteran stage and screen actress Jean Hagen (you know her best from Singin’ In The Rain), while in the next few years, as the kids grow up and can be more reliably used in story, they begin to assume the focal point of Danny’s dilemmas, with Margaret taking more of a backseat. Additionally, the show becomes louder as it goes along, with more shouting between characters and a general uptick in energy that’s not only more frenzied, but appears to be interested in maximizing comedic opportunities. As a result, Season One is the quietest, the sweetest, and the most reflective of a show that features young kids as part of its regular cast.
As a whole though, the Hagen years seem to be more dramatically interesting. That is, there’s a sense of the one-act play, with a range of emotions and a combination of comedy, drama, and sentiment that certainly yields nuance and allowed critics of the time to champion their honesty. To wit, even though the series was not tops in the Nielsens — it was on the low-rated ABC, after all — it won several Emmys early in its run, first as the best “new” show during its first season, and then the following year, when both Thomas and the series were honored. (There would only be two other wins throughout the run, both for Leonard’s directing.) Naturally, the show would always sneak in earnest moments, but they decline in number over the years, especially after Danny meets his second wife Kathy, who ushers in several years of newlywed optimism — and a quality-elevating search for bigger laughs — that disrupts this continuity and makes it harder for the series to earn the same kind of moments it had when the kids were younger and more prone to sincerity. However, this early dramatic quality also comes, in part, from Hagen, who imbues the show with a New York sensibility — a sense of theatre — that it later lacks, and indeed, Hagen is a better, more realistic actress than Lord, whose primary asset is her charm and ability to make us believe that bullheaded Danny would fall for her — she makes sense as his wife: she’s spunky, but basically submissive. It’s become a bit clichéd to say that Margaret was more combative with Danny, for the truth is that Hagen simply shares less innate chemistry with Thomas, and our knowledge of her surprising exit, in which her character was killed off, has made us hypersensitive to perceived tension. Really? She’s just less buyable as his partner. Now, some argue Margaret and Danny weren’t newlyweds, while Kathy and Danny were, and this accounts for their different degrees of affection, but, from what I’ve seen, even in romantic moments, Danny and Margaret remain more opposed.
The bigger point, I think, is that Margaret existed at a time when the show was hyper-focused on exploring its dramatic thesis, which was Danny trying to balance being both entertainer and father, and as such, the Margaret years more often put her in conflict with him as a way to make use of the premise. By the time Kathy comes around, the show has pivoted more to the home, or rather, it has squarely placed its emphasis on the home by eliminating the drama between the two worlds, and only features the professional realm as an excuse for guest stars, which, like the show’s honesty, exerts itself as a goal on and off over the years. Thus, Kathy’s character, when she is first introduced, has a different dramatic function — not to clash with Danny over his dedication to his work, but to ingratiate herself into an already established family. As most of you know, Kathy’s first few seasons acknowledge that she is Danny’s second wife, but once Terry leaves (after her 1960 wedding), Rusty starts calling Kathy “mom” and there’s never any effort made to acknowledge the blended family drama that underscored, specifically, Seasons Five and Six, which are incidentally the series’ finest, both because this scenario provides fascinating emotional subtext, and also because the show wants to have a full family at its hearth and rejoices at being complete again — now with a little kid, a middle kid, and, when she’s around, an older kid, which means more story possibilities than ever before. This switch also occurs at a time when the show was primed for change; it moved from ABC to CBS after Season Four, its first year called The Danny Thomas Show — during which he was a widower struggling to raise two kids, and scripts had fresh dramatic ground to cover, particularly as they moved into the latter half of the year and started auditioning women to take Margaret’s place.
There’ll be more on Four soon, but for now, note that, despite being the first with Leonard as producer and Stander as headwriter, it’s more in step with the dramatically sharp, humanity-seeking Margaret seasons, as its mother-less situation necessities an extra gentleness, which will be lost when Danny finds happiness again with Kathy and the show jumps to CBS for Season Five. Talk about a leap of faith! Although the show was always considered well-made, Danny Thomas had never cracked the seasonal Top 30 until it was given the chance to shine in a cushy slot: the one vacated by I Love Lucy. It ended up delivering — it was #2 in 1957-’58 — but it had to take on more of Lucy‘s heightened comic sensibilities, which meant less schmaltz and more slapstick, and more broadly, a greater emphasis on laughs. This is EXACTLY why Seasons Five and Six are the best years: they still have truth, but with more humor… Yet these changing standards also require reliance on broader characters, like Danny’s domineering Lebanese uncle, Tonoose (Hans Conried), who debuted during the last Margaret season but was used much more in the Lord era. He’s a larger than life figure — more a caricature than anything — but he has actual definition on a show where, again, everyone other than Danny is used mostly based on their relation to him. Kathy has even less substance than Margaret (which becomes clearer as the newlywed gloss wears), and while the kids coast on honesty, the older Rusty gets, the less the show feels comfortable using him (just as with Beaver). Accordingly, the show then turns either to story — like Terry’s engagement and wedding (to a cardboard cutout suitor played by Pat Harrington Jr., whom Thomas hoped would take over the show) — or to new characters for distraction, like the aforementioned Jose, and an eventual secondary couple, Charley (Sid Melton) and Bunny (Pat Carroll), two funny performers who don’t get much on the page but are called upon to anchor the show in its penultimate season, when Thomas sought to phase himself out of the weekly TV grind and had Danny take Kathy on a season-long European tour (yielding eight terrible on-location, non-audience installments), while the other couple sat at home with the kids continuing the format as established.
Season Ten, where dreadful European episodes mix with regular Danny Thomas offerings that are sans Danny Thomas, is the series’ lowest ebb. Eleven (1963-’64) shows improvement, as our knowledge of its finality pushes character growth for the kids, and the writing, particularly in the Danny and Kathy relationship, begins to take on more of the traits associated with The Dick Van Dyke Show, reasserting both realism and comedy to the proceedings, and validating my “not-so-missing link” reason for covering it here… Also, the last two seasons, along with Four, were not officially available for several decades, and so getting to see and discuss them now is a pleasure that I look forward to sharing with you. Regarding the rest of the run, I’ve already explained (briefly) why Seasons Five and Six are the show’s best — I can’t wait to feature them: Five is the series at its funniest while still honest, and Six, despite more gimmicks, has the most episodic gems — and the good news is that those are precisely the two years released on DVD as of this writing. Unfortunately, the Season Five set uses edited prints, but fortunately, Amazon Prime offers Seasons Five, Six, and most of Seven unedited and in pristine quality; I urge you, if these posts interest you, to check those out. As for the Margaret years, I like what I see and hope one day to see more. In the meantime, I want to share an episode. It’s from Season Two — what may be the most ideal of her seasons, with a happy medium between the kids’ usage and Margaret’s usage — and was released on VHS many years ago. It’s called “Peter Pan” and first aired on March 08, 1955, the night after NBC broadcast the first live production of Mary Martin in the classic 1954 musical. Written by Mac Benoff and directed by Sheldon Leonard, this is a great sample of the series with Jean Hagen, for there are genuine laughs, but more importantly, a sense of reality (the Peter Pan connection is specific), and some sincere moments that feature a guest star (Cecil Kellaway) who celebrates show business, all within a story that bridges the gap between Danny’s professional and personal worlds. Enjoy!
Come back next week and tomorrow for more Danny Thomas!