David Nelson, the last surviving family member of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, died of complications from colon cancer at 74 last month. More or less the straight man to brash brother Ricky’s freewheeling wisecracking, the elder of the Nelson brothers—who directed several episodes of the television version in its final years—eventually made a second career as a producer and director of televison commercials, periodic television movies, and a few feature films, living quietly enough in southern California.
We would keep up the front of this totally problemless, happy-go-lucky group. There might have been a tremendous battle in our home, but if someone from outside came in, it would be as if the director yelled, ‘Roll ’em,’ We’d fall right into our stage roles.—David Nelson.
I am honoured to republish this essay in his and his family’s memory.—JK.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Invitations to Dinner (NBC, 1949)
Whether this proves a date to live in infamy depends upon whether you are a fan or a detractor of this show, though here may be a hint: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is far more effective—and far less vulnerable to dismissal as a mere nuclear family cliché—in its original radio incarnation.
But tonight’s date will prove to be a watershed for its longtime fans, who have Bing Crosby, inadvertently, to thank for the idea: David and Ricky Nelson make their first appearances as themselves, after almost five years of listening to and watching Joel Davis and Henry Blair play them, on their parents’ radio hit.
By most accounts, the real David and Ricky were rather jealous of the boys who played them on the air and thus made a small dark art of on-set horseplay. Then Der Bingle and his son Lindsay turned up on a Nelson show, provoking Ozzie to return the favour with his boys. Almost overnight, the real Nelsons—sometimes with their real sons—were in demand for gigs on some of radio’s prime presentations, including but not limited to those of Jack Benny and Fred Allen, “where they seemed,” as Gerald Nachman would write it in Raised on Radio, “a fresh breeze from suburbia.”
From which launch David Nelson, alas, ends up in the slightly unenviable position of playing straight man to kid brother Ricky’s unexpected flair for quips and barbs and likewise unexpected virtuosity at getting laughs.
The boys turned pro fast, questioning lines that didn’t sound like them, and Ozzie became facile at working their lives into scripts. The real Ricky was a hit with his brash comebacks, which got out of hand when he began ad-libbing. Ozzie took him aside and scotched that idea, saying, Ozzie-like, “Son, there is no such thing as a child comedian.” Yet he once cannily observed, “It’s a cruel hard fact that a punch line delivered by a little guy of eight will get a much bigger laugh than the same line delivered by a boy of twelve.” Ricky became the program’s half-pint star, so much so that Harriet said, “It’ll be a wonder if David doesn’t murder Ricky in his bed some night.”
—Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)
As things turned out, it may have been a wonder that someone else didn’t murder Ricky in or out of his bed. The kid would fall into a spell of what they used to call juvenile delinquency as he entered an adolescence that took “awkward” to a few extremes about which the less said, the better, even if he isn’t part of one of the nation’s most popular radio and, in time, television shows.
Having more talent than just for comedy (“I don’t mess around, boy” will become a famous enough catch phrase) will save him—for a little while, anyway. The full story is for another time and place, but for now we will say only that he will not be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, two years after his tragic death in a plane crash at 45, merely because of his matinee-idol looks, his oddly mature (for his age) voice, his ready-made television access (for a few years, viewers would be unable to watch The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet without getting a guaranteed song or two from Ricky to finish off every two episodes or so), and a father who was at least smart enough to insist on his son’s interest and genuine musical talent being respected. (Among other things, and this will be, alas, too much forgotten in years to come, when Ricky will be remembered too much for his teen-idol years and not enough for his role in helping midwife the union—reunion?—of rock and roll with country music: Ozzie Nelson would strong-arm Imperial Records into giving Ricky a contract that gave the kid near-complete control over his music and its packaging.)
But that is the future. And, unlike the shows to which it will be compared too often for pasteurising if not idealistically neutering the reality of American family life (on the other hand, I’ll bet you don’t remember that this pastuerised all-American couple were the only couple on 1950s television who dared to sleep in the same bed!), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet—in radio especially—will remain a legitimate comedy with a cheerful and oddly realistic streak of absurdism to keep it from getting too deep into fantasyland. (Ozzie is at least a damn shade more human than those paragons of pleistocene paternal philosophicking, Jim Anderson the television version—Father Knows Best likewise works better in its radio genesis—and Ward Cleaver. Who cared what Ozzie did for a living?) And the Nelson clan probably had the real Ricky to thank for that as much as they had Ozzie the willing fall guy. (Was there another radio father this side of The Life of Riley who was that stubbornly prone to confused tangents until he had to be saved from himself time and again, even if Ozzie’s radio persona wasn’t even half that much of a nitwit and Harriet wasn’t driven even a quarter of the way toward wanting to brain him with the first available stock pot?)
Tonight: David, who isn’t necessarily one of the world’s great chatterboxes to begin with, has been a little too quiet all morning long, and what a surprise—his parents practically have to wrest from him his dilemna of accepting a party invitation for the same night on which he has to play basketball on the school team . . . a dilemna his parents are going to have to resolve themselves, when Ozzie and Harriet each accept separate dinner invitations for the same evening.
Thorny: John Brown. Pamela Jones: Possibly Bea Benaderet. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: Verne Smith. Music: Billy May. Director: Dave Elton. Writers: Ozzie Nelson, numerous uncredited staffers, possibly including Selma Diamond, Jack Douglas, Paul West.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Box 13: Flash of Light (Mutual, 1949)—Visiting the city from his native small town, frightened young Jerry Fuller (possibly John Beal) doesn’t know what happened to him over a two-day blackout, but Holliday (Alan Ladd) fears Fuller is endangered because of what a someone unsavoury thinks he does know. The usual laconically wry exercise. Suzy: Sylvia Picker. Kling: Edmund McDonald. Landlord: Possibly Herbert Vigran. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: Vern Carstensen. Music: Rudy Schrager. Director: Richard Sandhill. Writer: Russell Hughes.
Lux Radio Theater: Stage Door (CBS, 1939)—Ginger Rogers reprises her film role as a society girl trying to make it on Broadway without her family connections, while finding herself knitting into the lives of the fellow hopefuls with whom she rooms . . . unaware of her father’s pending backstage machinations. Additional cast: Adolph Menjou (as Tony Powell), Rosalind Russell (in Katharine Hepburn’s film role as Terry Randall), Eve Arden (in Gail Patrick’s film role as Linda Shaw). Host: Cecil B. DeMille. Adapted from the screenplay by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller; based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.
Arthur Prim: Report on a Flight over Iwo Jima (Combined American Networks, 1945)—If you can withstand the frequent interference punctuations, you are in for one of the signature radio reports of World War II—Prim’s unforgettable description of his observation flight over the early stage peak in the arduous battle for Iwo Jima. Formally designated Operation Detachment, the battle is something of a contentious issue at first; in fact, at least one military expert (retired Chief of Naval Operations William Pratt), will tell Newsweek over a month after Iwo Jima is taken that the “small, God-forsaken island” was useless to the Army Air Force as a staging base. Kept secret at the time under the auspices of the Manhattan Project: Iwo Jima is actually an ideal—and critical—emergency location for the testy B-29 bombers (sometimes prone to engine failure) designated to carry the atomic bomb.
Maxwell House Coffee Time with George Burns & Gracie Allen: Fifteenth Anniversary in Radio (NBC, 1947)—The celebration includes music by Al Jolson, who’s the inadvertent fall guy when George (Burns) decides Gracie (Allen) deserves a big surprise for their radio anniversary, considering the flashback to Jolson’s boosting the couple toward radio. The Happy Postman: Mel Blanc. Himself: Bill Goodwin (announcer). Music: Meredith Willson and His Orchestra. Director: Possibly Ralph Levy. Writers: George Burns, Paul Henning, Keith Fowler.
Our Miss Brooks: The Frog (CBS, 1949)—Tiring of competing with Boyton’s (Jeff Chandler) favourite lab frog for the clueless biologist’s attention (and affection), resolute Connie (Eve Arden) decides Boynton should mate the frog with a lady. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
The Couple Next Door: Waiting Outside the Department Store (CBS, 1958)—It gets half our couple (Alan Bunce) in a whole momentary jam with a somewhat zealous police officer, when he has to double park waiting for his lady (Peg Lynch) to arrive at five and his friendship with the station lieutenant means three things (jack, diddley, and squat) to the cop. Announcer: Unknown. Writer/director: Peg Lynch.