Wednesday, September 28, 2011

 

When Hazel says hello


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Theodore Keyser — recognized under his professional handle, Ted Key — spent most of his 95-year lifespan as a prolific illustrator and cartoonist. He also was talented enough to dabble in many media beyond cartooning — several of the children’s books he wrote and illustrated, for example, were adapted into movies produced by the Walt Disney Studio: The Million Dollar Duck (1971), Gus (1976) and The Cat from Outer Space (1978). He even was responsible for creating one of the famous animated segments of Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show: the time-traveling adventures of canine inventor Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman that we know as “Peabody’s Improbable History.” (Jay Ward, whose studio produced the adventures of Moose and Squirrel and Company, was a good friend of Ted’s brother Leonard.)

But Key’s most lasting creation came to him in the form of a dream: one night in 1943, he woke up and jotted down an idea about a bossy maid on a pad by his bedside…and picking the name “Hazel” out of the air, drew a cartoon the following morning and submitted it to The Saturday Evening Post. The Post started publishing Key’s one-panel cartoons and continued to do so until 1969 when the famed magazine faded out of existence…and then the King Features Syndication took over distribution of the strip, offering it to newspapers until the artist retired in 1993. His invention of the take-charge domestic who called the shots in the Baxter household won him the Newspaper Panel Cartoon Award from the National Cartoonists’ Society in 1977…but he was to receive an even loftier accolade when a television sitcom based on his creation, Hazel, debuted on NBC 50 years ago today.


Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, had scored a successful boob tube hit in 1959 with another one-panel comic strip in Dennis the Menace…and since Fred Allen once observed that “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” the company decided to try and capture lightning in a bottle a second time two years later with a TV version of Key’s meddlesome maid. Cast in the starring role was no doubt the most unlikely actress to headline a sitcom: Shirley Booth, who was best known for her extensive stage work (Tony Award wins for Goodbye, My Fancy and The Time of the Cuckoo) and occasional appearances in dramatic feature films — notably Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)…in which she duplicated her Tony Award win as tortured wife Lola Delaney with an Oscar statuette as well. With her accomplishments onscreen and her lengthy, distinguished stage career…could she really do a weekly comedy series every week?

The answer to that question was yes…and in fact, she had already done so. Booth was at one time married to writer-comedian Ed Gardner (they tied the knot in 1929), whose half-hour comedy creation Duffy’s Tavern had become a smash on radio…and Gardner had been able to talk his wife into taking on the role of one of Tavern’s characters, the dizzy, man-chasing Miss Duffy (the daughter of the drinking establishment’s owner). Gardner and Booth divorced in 1942 (supposedly he was jealous of her stage career…which seems a little petty since he himself was receiving wealth and fame as a result of Duffy’s) and she continued on the series for a little longer, finally leaving in 1943. Booth took her “homely spinster” and renamed her “Dottie Mahoney,” then began making the rounds of other network comedy shows afterward. She had even been the first choice of producer Harry Ackerman to play the lead role in the radio sitcom Our Miss Brooks — but because Booth had difficulty finding the lighter side of the tart-tongued, love-starved schoolteacher her loss turned out to be Eve Arden’s gain. Since Ackerman later became the vice president of production at Screen Gems from 1958 to 1974, it’s a reasonably safe bet that he recognized Hazel would be the perfect vehicle for Booth’s decision to get into television (although the story also goes that Thelma Ritter had originally been approached to play the part before she took a pass). Burt Lancaster, Booth’s co-star in Sheba, warned her off Hazel, yelling her that the experience would “cheapen” her. “Time will tell if it cheapens me,” she told him in response, “and if it does, I hope to be as cheapened as Lucy (Lucille Ball).”

As Hazel Burke, a maid employed by George Baxter and his family, Booth infused the character created by Key with a great deal of warmth and likability. Hazel was a flawed individual — she could be quite pushy and overbearing, and she harbored a stubborn streak…once she had decided she was right there was no detouring her from any course of action on which she’d set her mind. But the actress was able to temper all that with a genuine tenderness that kept Hazel from being too obnoxious; she had a deep and abiding affection for her employers, and really functioned as an extended member of the Baxter clan (sort of a busybody aunt). An episode that beautifully illustrates the sentiment present between Hazel and the Baxters is “Hazel’s Famous Recipes,” in which Hazel’s employer George Baxter (Don DeFore) convinces a publisher to market a cookbook containing Hazel’s mouth-watering gastronomical delights. Both Hazel and the family are crushed when they learn that publication of the book will mean that Hazel will be on the road for six months plugging her tome — but when the publisher discovers that her recipes were culled from an earlier cookbook (still under copyright) she and the Baxters are overjoyed by the news.

George, a successful partner in the law firm of Butterworth, Noll, Hatch & Baxter, had no idea that when he married his wife Dorothy (Whitney Blake) he would get Hazel as the dowry. Hazel had worked for Dorothy’s family since she was 8 (she also doubled as nanny to “Missy,” as Hazel affectionately called her) and now was running things in the Baxter household — doing the cooking, cleaning, etc. and keeping an eye on the Baxter’s son, Harold (Bobby Buntrock), whom she usually referred to as “Sport.” To Hazel, George was “Mr. B” — and though he may have been king of the corporation lawyers once he arrived at his office on weekday mornings, upon his return trip to his castle he had to reconcile himself to the fact that he was now in Hazel’s domain. George and Hazel had a love-hate relationship (she often drove him to thoughts of homicide…and I don’t think a jury would have convicted him) and many of the show’s plots centered round the contest of wills between the Yale-educated attorney and his whip-smart “domestic engineer.”

The unavoidable reality of the matter is that Hazel’s unshakable devotion to the Baxters also made her television’s most famous “buttinsky”; the first episode of the series, “Hazel and the Playground,” details our heroine’s attempts to get a playground built in the neighborhood so that the children (particularly “Sport”) will have a place to play. She suggests that it be built on the site of a botanical garden that was dedicated to the city by the grandfather of one of George’s clients who becomes so incensed at Hazel’s meddling that he threatens to take his business elsewhere (naturally, he comes around by episode’s end). Another outing, “Hazel Plays Nurse,” introduces a semi-regular character in Harvey Griffin (Howard Smith); a client of George’s that Mr. B has nicknamed “The Steamroller” in deference to his no-nonsense iron will. Griffin’s hurricane temper soon becomes merely a pesky squall once he comes into contact with Hazel, who decrees that Mr. B’s health is more important than seeing his client. It wouldn’t be the first nor last time Griffith would lock horns with the maid though he could usually be pacified with one of her wondrous home-cooked meals.

Other supporting characters seen on the series at various times included her best bud Rosie Hammaker (Maudie Prickett) — also a maid and a member in good standing in The Sunshine Girls, a sort of sorority for domestics — and postman Barney Hatfield (Robert Williams), who not only delivered the mail through rain, sleet and snow but could double as Hazel’s escort if she needed a date for a dance. The Baxters also had neighbors in well-to-do Herbert and Harriet Johnson (Donald Foster, Norma Varden), who frequently called upon Hazel to assist them with some complicated task from time to time. George’s snobbish sister Deirdre Thompson (Cathy Lewis) also turned up in a few episodes, forever being put in her place by the down-to-earth Hazel; in “George’s Niece,” Deirdre informs the Baxters that she and her husband will be moving into their neck of the woods and that she and her daughter Nancy (Davey Davison) will be arriving for a visit in order to scope out a house, check on schools, etc. Nancy and Deirdre don’t get along too well, and when Nancy discovers boys she confides not in her mum but in a middle-age housekeeper (yes, you-know-who).

Hazel Burke compensated for her meddlesome manner by being a refreshing, unpretentious soul who didn’t always use proper grammar (“Ain’t he a doozy?” and “You’re darn tootin’” were just two of her pet expressions) but whose life was dictated by old-fashioned values and plain common sense. She was the gal (who was “everybody’s pal,” as the theme song’s lyrics informed us) the kids wanted to play on their football or baseball teams; she spoke her mind and wasn’t bashful about doing so; and she basically treated everyone in the manner that she herself wanted to be treated. An episode entitled “Hazel’s Secret Wish” provides a telling glimpse into Hazel’s character: offered the opportunity to spend a two-week vacation at a ritzy health spa, Hazel meets with disapproval from a pair of bluenoses (one of which is played by veteran radio/voice actress Betty Lou Gerson) and even is asked by the resort’s owner to downplay her housekeeping occupation. When the two snobs start giving Hazel grief about befriending one of the maids at the resort, Hazel lets fly with how she really feels about them and reveals that she herself is a maid in the process. Hazel apologizes to the spa owner for this little indiscretion, but she’s interrupted by a third high-society dame (Kathryn Givney) who demands that she have meals served in her room during the rest of her stay…and that Hazel be her personal guest during those meals.

When Hazel premiered in the fall of 1961, critics weren’t too impressed with the show (calling it “contrived” and “repetitive”) but audiences loved it — it ranked No. 4 among all prime time network programming in its debut season, and Shirley Booth received back-to-back Emmy Awards as outstanding actress for her work (she was nominated a total of three times on the show). Despite being an audience favorite, NBC canceled Hazel after four seasons, but CBS believed enough in Booth’s star power to pick up the show after its Peacock rival had set it outside at the curb. They did not, however, believe in co-stars Don DeFore and Whitney Blake; in seeking a “younger demographic” they asked the producers to ship “Mr. B” and “Missy” off to Saudi Arabia (CBS stated that Blake was unable to commit to the show after NBC’s cancellation; DeFore noted that he found out about the change while reading the newspaper) leaving Harold in Hazel’s charge (something that seriously disturbed me as a rerun-watching kid) as she went to work for George’s younger brother Steve (Ray Fulmer) and his adorable wife Barbara (Lynn Borden, a former Miss Arizona tabbed by Booth personally to play the role because Shirl owned a chunk of the sitcom) and cute daughter Susie (Julia Benjamin). Steve could never figure out just why George let himself be steamrolled by the dominating Hazel, but it didn’t take him too long to learn. The show came to an end in 1966 — not due to declining ratings, but because of Booth’s ill health (she suffered from chronic bursitis).

At the height of Hazel's popularity in 1963, Booth told an AP reporter: “I liked playing Hazel the first time I read one of the scripts, and I could see all the possibilities of the character — the comedy would take care of itself. My job was to give her heart. Hazel never bores me. Besides, she's my insurance policy.” Because Booth was fortunate enough to own a piece of the series it paid off like a slot machine when the program was sold to syndication — I remember watching the show constantly as a kid growing up in West Virginia, where it seemed to run like tap water. Hazel was a staple of TBS’ morning lineup during the early 1980s; it also turned up briefly on WGN and TV Land and currently has found a home at the newest contender for the classic television audience, Antenna TV. Sony Pictures Entertainment released Hazel's inaugural season to DVD in 2006 (the 35 episodes that year included one experimental color outing entitled “What’ll We Watch Tonight?” which amusingly enough, deals with Hazel’s efforts to wangle a color TV out of George) and after a long dry spell (something that I railed about quite a bit at my home base at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) it was announced that Shout! Factory had acquired the DVD distribution rights to the show, with the second season scheduled for release in 2011.

With Hazel making inroads with a new TV generation 50 years later — does the show continue to wear well or has time “cheapened” Hazel, as Burt Lancaster forewarned? I think the comic chemistry between Shirley and Don still works beautifully, though I can’t deny that DeFore’s George Baxter is a bit of a chauvinist (which wasn’t unusual for the times) and an inattentive father on occasion. The producers were smart to cast DeFore (he’d already established his TV bona fides as the Nelson’s jovial next-door neighbor, “Thorny” Thornberry, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) because in the hands of another actor George Baxter wouldn’t have come off too well — DeFore has a goodnaturedness about him that’s endearing to the audience (he even laughs out loud at himself after he’s continually bested by his considerably brainier maid). Psychology students also might be interested in how dysfunctional George’s family can be: a textbook example is “Everybody’s Thankful But Us Turkeys,” in which George’s other sister Phyllis (Beverly Tyler) and her husband Bob (Charles Cooper) are feudin’, fussin’ and a-fightin’ and seem headed on the road to divorce — while George’s ma (Harriet MacGibbon of The Beverly Hillbillies) is depressed because she feels unneeded by her family. Hazel’s solution? She asks Mother Baxter to help out with the Thanksgiving dinner (no Prozac for you!) and when Phyllis comes into the kitchen as well it’s decided that what she needs to hold onto her man is…cooking lessons. (Well, I never denied the show wasn’t chauvinistic.)

George Baxter may also have been the first chunky sitcom husband (in the tradition of the schlubby heads of households on The King of Queens, Still Standing and According to Jim) to have a far more attractive wife in Dorothy; sure, you could argue that we owe Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) of The Honeymooners that debt but I think that depends on whether or not you consider Alice (Audrey Meadows) a “hottie.” As for Hazel…she laid the foundation for future sassier and/or sarcastic domestics (Florida on Maude, Florence on The Jeffersons, Geoffrey on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) who knew they ruled the roost in the households that employed them because despite whoever was the king (or queen) of the castle they’re the ones who cleaned it. Fifty years after we were first invited in for some of Hazel Burke’s homemade cookies…she’s still a “doozy.”

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