The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: The quintessential 50s family

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“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, starring the entire Nelson family: Here’s Ozzie, here’s Harriet, here’s David, and here’s Ricky”

The Nelsons begin second decade on television (1962)

“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” begins its second decade of telecasting with its fall bow September 27 on ABC-TV.

Including its long run on radio, the weekly half-hour family situation comedy series is actually starting its 19th consecutive year on the air. It thus re-establishes itself as one of the most durable and popular programs in the history of the broadcasting industry.

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, with their progeny David and Rick, are synonymous with the American family image both on and off television.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

Theirs is a unique history. The Nelson boys — with their parents much in evidence — are perhaps the only people who have literally grown up before the eyes of millions of weekly viewers.

The boys joined their parents on the radio show in 1948, when David was 11 and Rick 8 years old. Ozzie has portrayed himself on the show, produced and directed it, and also been its chief writer from the beginning. And Harriet has played herself on the series since the outset.

Today, David (25) and Rick (22), in addition to their TV series, are a fraternal couplet of burgeoning showbiz talent. Bobby-sox idol Rick is a movie actor and a rock ‘n roll singer with eight “gold records” to his credit. Married brother Dave, who is also well-known to movie audiences, is an accomplished trapeze artist.

Ozzie and Harriet: The quintessential 50s family

Molding character

Ozzie and Harriet don’t take bows for their boys’ success.

“Ozzie and I both feel,” says Harriet, “that parents should think twice before taking bows for their children. Just as parents shouldn’t always get the blame when offsprings turn out badly, they shouldn’t automatically take credit for their success.

“We believe a child is born with a capacity for success or failure. Perhaps parents’ principal responsibility is to help mold character.”

Harriet is amused when she receives letters asking advice on “how to handle teenagers.”

“When our boys were little, I was told, ‘Wait until they become teenagers . . . that’s when the trouble starts!'” she laughed. “I’m still waiting, because so far nothing alarming has happened.”

It is obvious that Ozzie and Harriet haven’t forgotten their own youth.

“Ozzie and I wonder sometimes if perhaps a lot of folks have awfully short memories. I’m sure some who are so disturbed over rock ‘n’ roll were knocking themselves out 30 years or so ago with the Charleston. But do you think our generation would ever admit we turned out wrong? Not on your life!”

Sons and daughters often become uncommunicative during their teens. Dave and Rick were no exception.

“Ozzie and I learned that the less we asked about our sons’ private affairs, the more they told us when they were ready,” Harriet recalls.

The Nelson family

Parents leading by example

The Nelsons are together much more than most families, and Mrs. Nelson observes: “I’m sure our sons have a greater understanding of and respect for their father because for the past 14 years they’ve watched him work day after day.

“They see first-hand the many problems he must solve as producer, director, chief writer and actor of our family show. If, at the end of a day, Ozzie is tired, they know why.

“Ozzie and I are careful about respecting the boys’ privacy. We are always around if they need our advice, but we never ‘pry’ into their personal affairs.”

Ozzie and Harriet TV show family on ABC (1954)
Industry promo for the Ozzie and Harriet TV show on ABC (1954)

Although the Nelsons are a closely-knit family in their personal life, just as they are on the air, Ozzie and Harriet have gone along with their sons in their desire to have living and/or rehearsal quarters of their own.

For instance, before Dave married, June Blair, who is also his TV wife, he had his own house in the Hollywood Hills. Rick divides his time between the family home and a place of his own — a small rehearsal cottage located behind the family home.

“Harriet and I had the cottage built several years ago when Rick’s recordings first started to catch the public fancy, and music began to take up more and more of his time,” Ozzie explains.

TV guide cover with the Nelson family (1954)

“It’s really no more than a music studio — a place where he can keep his instruments, rehearse new songs and work out musical arrangements.”

“It was partly self-defense,” Harriet adds. “We had to get some sleep.”

“Typically, Ozzie and Harriet have allowed their brood to carry a major share of responsibility. As much as they could handle, in fact. Ozzie figured that if the kids weren’t permitted to make decisions when they were young, they might not be able to make them when they were adults.

See the show’s opening titles & theme music below!

David, Ricky, Ozzie & Harriet Nelson - Magazine cover

Harriet & Ozzie Nelson

Harriet & Ozzie Nelson

Ricky Nelson & David Nelson

Ricky Nelson & David Nelson

TV show intros & opening titles for Ozzie and Harriet

YouTube video

Ozzie & Harriet (1975)

By Gary Deer / The Cincinnati Enquirer (1975)

I’ll always remember Ozzie Nelson as the guy who housed and clothed his family in grand style for 22 years despite having no visible means of support.

In the Nelson household, “crisis” meant Ozzie picking out a tie … or trying to find the sports section… or deciding which shoe to put on first… or choosing a flavor for his afternoon milkshake at the malt shop.

Come to think of it, Oz had a pathological fixation for ice cream that might have suggested a trip to the shrink for a character on any other TV series.

I mean, the guy should have weighed 700 pounds. At least three episodes of “Ozzie & Harriet” each season were devoted to whether Oz would satisfy his sweet tooth. Like the night he darted all over town in search of a place that served tutti fruitti.

Two years ago, when Ozzie and Harriet began a moderately successful TV comeback, it was a shock to check the calendar and discover that Ozzie, the Eternal Collegiate, was 67 years old.

It was another jolt the other day when he died of cancer.

To and increasing number of people in recent years, Ozzie Nelson was a bad joke. When critics compared today’s sophisticated comedies such as “MASH,” “All In The Family,’ and “Rhoda” with the scatterbrained dregs of yesteryear, it was “Ozzie & Harriet” who were used most frequently as the scapegoats.

I bear my own share of the guilt. In making comparisons, Ozzie always sprang to mind. And besides, it was Ozzie himself who created, produced, directed, molded, and shepherded the show from its radio inception in 1944 through its TV retirement in 1966.

But to simply blast Ozzie for perpetrating a fantasy-world is a knee-jerk reaction that fails to examine the reasons behind the Nelsons’ longevity.

The secret of their success was basic — they were nice. Ozzie, Harriet, Dave, Rick, their neighbors, in-laws, everybody.

As corny, banal and cliche-choked as “Ozzie & Harriet” was, it boasted a quiet charm and a precious sense of decency — civility might be a better word — that captured the hearts, if not the minds, of much of America for nearly a quarter-century.

More than just a big city answer to “Ma & Pa Kettle,” “Ozzie & Harriet” represented The Perfect Family — warmhearted, gentle, photogenic, in love with each other.

The Nelsons became a model, even a goal, for countless middle- class families from coast to coast, and it didn’t really matter if the weekly storylines were preposterous.

Rick Ludwin, a talk-show producer at WXYZ-TV in Detroit, is an “Ozzie & Harriet” freak. While doing graduate work at Northwestern University a few years ago, he actually wrote a research paper on the program.

“The show was far from absolutely realistic,” observes Ludwin. “But it was something with which the bulk of America could identify, and that, after all, is what television is all about.”

Ludwin contends that Ozzie deserves recognition as one of TV’s finest comedy directors, particularly in regard to the way he under-played most of the weekly situations instead of relying on pratfalls and pies in the face.

But even Ozzie, the consummate craftsman, wasn’t above plugola and subliminal advertising. For a while Coca Cola sponsored the show. So virtually every week Oz and his neighbor Thorny would go into the garage and raid the cooler for a couple of Cokes.

Later the American Dairy Association became the sponsor. Suddenly Oz developed his fascination with ice cream, Harriet started drinking lots of malts, and Dave and Ricky Kept gulping milk.

When Kodak picked up the program, sure enough, an unusual number of programs revolved around picture-taking. Oz would write in scenes where he’d snap some shots of Harriet and the boys and then say something like, “Gee, this — uh — camera sure is a honey. It — it — it was a real bar- gain, y’know?”

Such outrageous commercialism may have been a blot on the real Ozzie Nelson’s reputation as an all-around nice guy with no axes to grind.

Regardless, Ozzie’s image always will be a pleasing one. He was per- fectly matched to the 1950s, the dec- ade of his greatest success. He was a benign guy for a benign era. Ike was President. Times were tranquil. Life was painless.

And even later, when the world got noisy and frightening. Ozzie & Harriet provided a popular service. They were a dependable respite for those who were terrified by the pace of the world.

Escapism never was so nonviolent.

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