Friday, January 6, 2012

Danny Thomas at 100

When I think of early television situation comedies, two names come to mind. The fist is Lucille Ball, the star of I Love Lucy. The second is Danny Thomas, star of Make Room For Daddy (also known as The Danny Thomas Show).  It was 100 years ago today that Danny Thomas was born.

Sadly, while Lucille Ball is still well known, it seems to me that Danny Thomas has almost been forgotten. Oh, most people my age and a little younger still know who Danny Thomas is, even if they have never seen an episode of Make Room For Daddy, but I fear most younger people have no idea who he is, let alone just how much of a television pioneer he was. In many respects Make Room For Daddy was as revolutionary as I Love Lucy, and in some respects it was even more so. What is more, Danny Thomas was not only the star of his own sitcom like Lucy, but also like Lucy he was a television producer who would have a hand in some of the most influential TV shows of all time.

Danny Thomas was born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz on 6 January 1912 in Deerfield, Michigan to Lebanese parents. He began his career as a comic performing under an Anglicised version of his given name, "Amos Jacobs Kairouz." In 1932 he started performing on the radio show The Happy Hour on WMBC in Detroit, Michigan. By 1938 he had moved onto working in radio in the bigger market of Chicago. In 1940 he was offered a three year deal at the 4100 Club in Chicago that would pay much more than his work in radio did. Not particularly wanting his family and friends to know he had returned to working in clubs, he adopted a new stage name by combining the two names of his brothers--"Danny Thomas."

Fortunately, the 4100 Club would provide Mr. Thomas with his big break. He was spotted there by Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris Agency, who signed him to a USO tour featuring Marlene Dietrich and got him a part on Fanny Brice's radio programme The Baby Snooks Show. He would later join the cast of the radio show The Bickersons. In 1947 Danny Thomas would make his motion picture debut in The Unfinished Dance. He would go onto appear in Big City (1948), I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), and the 1952 version of The Jazz Singer. While he received good notices for his works in motion pictures, Danny Thomas's future would lie in another medium.

Having rejected the advice of three different studio to have plastic surgery performed on his admittedly large nose and tired of working night clubs, Danny Thomas looked for work in the television industry. His initial job in television was as one of the hosts (along with Jack Carson, Jimmy Durante, and Ed Wynn) of Four Star Revue on NBC. Neither Danny Thomas nor the show's other rotating hosts would remain with it for long. After its first season NBC changed the show's name to All Star Revue and replaced the rotating hosts with various big name, guest hosts.

Fortunately, Mr. Thomas's agent, Abe Lastfogel, would insure that he would continue to have a career in television. Quite simply, Mr. Lastfogel made it a condition that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) would have to take Danny Thomas if they wanted the then bigger star Ray Bolger (most famous as the Scarecrow on The Wizard of Oz). ABC had not been particularly impressed with Danny Thomas's performance on NBC's Four Star Revue and insisted that any show he in which he starred must be a sitcom. Mr. Thomas, producer Lou Edelman, and writer Mel Shaverson developed a premise for a sitcom that drew upon Mr. Thomas's own life as a nightclub performer with a family. In fact, it was Danny Thomas's wife who gave the show its title. While Mr. Thomas was on tour she would allow their children to sleep with her. When Mr. Thomas returned from touring, the children would then have to "make room for daddy."  Make Room For Daddy then centred on fictional nightclub performer Danny Williams and his family--wife Margaret (Jean Hagen), son Rusty (Rusty Hamer), and daughter Terry (Sherry Jackson).

On paper Make Room For Daddy sounds a lot like other domestic comedies of the era, such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, but in reality it was something wholly different. At the time most television fathers were inevitably either level headed straight men (Father Knows Best may be the best example) or total bumblers (The Stu Erwin Show). In contrast Danny Williams was neither. Danny could often be the source of comedy on the show, but at other times he could be the level headed father figure. He was in many respects a more realistic view of fatherhood and the forerunner of such TV dads as Andy Taylor (The Andy Griffith Show) and Cliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show).

Make Room For Daddy was also set apart from other domestic comedies of the time in that it often incorporated song and dance routines into its episodes, giving  the show much in common with I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show (which Danny Thomas produced). Although often classed as a domestic comedy, Make Room For Daddy was as much a show biz comedy as it was anything else. Indeed, this brings me to another way in which Make Room For Daddy differed from Father Knows Best and other domestic comedies. Quite simply, Make Room For Daddy was much more of an ensemble comedy. Episodes did not simply focus on Danny, his wife, and his children, but on their housekeeper Louise (played originally by Louise Beavers and later by Amanda Randolph) , members of the extender family (especially Uncle Tonoose, played by Hans Conried), Danny's manager Charlie (played by Sid Melton), and so on. To a degree this makes Make Room For Daddy the direct forerunner of other ensemble comedies, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and so on.

Make Room For Daddy was revolutionary in other ways as well. Like other shows of the era, Make Room For Daddy featured an African American domestic (played by Louise Beavers and later played by Amanda Randolph). Unlike many other shows of the time, the character of Louise was treated with much more respect. In fact, I remember an interview in which Danny Thomas told how the network really did not want him to express affection towards Louise (such as hugging her and so on). Mr. Thomas refused to comply. To him Louise was both a human being and a member of the Williams family.

In all Make Room For Daddy would run for twelve years and undergo several changes. Jean Hagen left the show after the third season to pursue her film and stage career. Margaret was then written out of the show as having died and Danny Williams spent the following season as a widower. In the fifth season Danny Williams married Kathy "Clancey" O'Hara (Marjorie Lord) and Clancey brought her daughter Linda (Angela Cartwright) into the marriage. In the 1957-1958 season Make Room For Daddy moved to CBS and was given the new title of The Danny Thomas Show. ABC had lost interest in the show, which was a grave error on their part. At CBS The Danny Thomas Show rose into the top ten rated shows where it remained until Mr. Thomas ended the show after twelve seasons.

Even if one does not regard Make Room For Daddy a revolutionary sitcom on the level of I Love Lucy, there can be no doubt of Danny Thomas's contributions to television history as a producer. It was during the first season that Sheldon Leonard became a director on the show.  An actor best known for his roles as gangsters and heavies (perhaps most familiar today to audiences as Nick in It's a Wonderful Life), Mr. Leonard wanted to break into directing and production. During the third season Mr. Leonard was promoted to the show's producer. Eventually Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard founded their own production company, one which would produce some of television's most legendary shows. From the late Fifties into the Sixties Messrs. Thomas and Leonard would produce such shows as The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bill Dana Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. The Andy Griffith Show was a spin off of Make Room For Daddy, an episode of which served as a back door pilot for the show. Danny Thomas himself cast Mary Tyler Moor as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. While many younger people today may have never heard of Make Room For Daddy, nearly everyone has heard of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Without Sheldon Leonard, Danny Thomas would produce shows such as The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Mod Squad.

Danny Thomas would continue to perform very nearly until his death. In 1970 he appeared in a continuation of Make Room For Daddy called Make Room For Granddaddy. He later starred in the short lived series The Practice  (not to be confused with the legal drama of the same name), I'm a Big Girl Now, and One Big Family. His last appearance was a guest shot on Empty Nest in 1991--the year that he died.

Danny Thomas was not simply a great comic actor and legendary television producer. He was also a humanitarian. Indeed, he founded St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a non-profit hospital and research facility focused on children's diseases.

Although Danny Thomas is not remembered today as he should be, there can be no doubt of his contributions to television. Make Room For Daddy was a revolutionary sitcom which pioneered ensemble comedies and gave the world a more realistic view of fatherhood than its contemporaries. As a producer Danny Thomas gave us legendary, character driven comedies, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show, that would surpass the success of his own show. As a humanitarian he founded St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Danny Thomas was a fine human being and a towering figure in the history of television. It is something that we should not soon forget.


Toby O'B said...

Over the summer there was a big to-do over Lucy's centennial. It is sad that - as far as I know - there were no big blog-a-thon celebrations for Danny.

Thanks for being there to remind the web-world......

Terence Towles Canote said...

Toby, there were a few other blogs that observed Danny's 100th birthday, but I was shocked at the lack of media coverage. The only news article on his centennial was in The Huffington Post and that was by his daughter Marlo! Of course, I also remember that fellow TV legend Phil Silvers' centennial also passed without note except for blogs as well. I have to admit I missed Phil's--I'd just lost my job and my best friend's health was rapidly failing--although I plan a post for his 101st birthday!

Sadly, I think in the case of both Danny and Phil's centennials, it is a case of "out of sight, out of mind." While I Love Lucy is still being rerun, I know of no place that runs Make Room For Daddy or The Phil Silvers Show. A shame really, as they both are sitcoms that were as revolutionary in their own ways as I Love Lucy!