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Happy Birthday, Harriet Hilliard!


If actress-singer Harriet Hilliard—born on this date in 1909—had kept her birth name of Peggy Louise Snyder…do you think anyone would have been comfortable referring to her long-running radio and TV sitcom as The Adventures of Ozzie & Peggy? Nah…that doesn’t sound quite right. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, young Peg was a show business veteran at the age of only six weeks—her parents were also troupers, and her actress mother carried her on stage so that she could make her thespic debut. Peggy started acting regularly at the age of three, and by the time she was ready for high school graduation she opted to join the Castle Ballet at New York’s Capitol Theater. Back in those vaudeville days, performers did it all: acting, singing, dancing—qualities that certainly came in handy when she was hired by Ken Murray (and later, stage legend Bert Lahr) to be the “straight woman” in his act.

harriet10In 1932, Ms. Snyder made the acquaintance of a young bandleader named Ozzie Nelson…who came up with the then-novel idea of including a female in his musical aggregation. “He wanted to do musical comedy duets at the bandstand,” Harriet later told Chuck Schaden in a 1989 interview. “He said the boys would have something to look at as well as the girls!” As it turns out, Ozzie did his share of looking as well; after renaming Peggy “Harriet Hilliard,” the two of them participated in a whirlwind summer courtship that would later lead to forty years of holy matrimony beginning in 1935.

harriet3Ozzie had never intended to get into the band leading business—it was merely a sideline for him while he considered putting his law degree to use by hanging out his shingle. But the income from his band proved so lucrative that he stayed in show business, and Harriet was the perfect partner for him. They were among the first couples to trade song lyrics back-and-forth in a nonchalant, casual manner. While Harriet vocalized, she also pursued an acting career. She was under contract to RKO and appeared in several films for the studio—the most famous being the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936).

Another film from Harriet’s RKO resume was The Life of the Party (1937), a musical comedy romp that featured the talents of radio comedian Joe Penner…who had been Ozzie & Harriet’s radio co-worker at one time. The couple regularly appeared with Joe on The Bakers Broadcast from 1933 to 1935, and inherited the program when Penner made a rather unwise career move to leave the show. The Nelsons were joined by “Believe it or Not” creator Robert L. Ripley for the 1935-37 seasons, and stayed for another year after that with cartoonist Feg Murray until the show was cancelled in June of 1938.

harriet1Three years later, the Nelsons landed a plum gig on The Raleigh Cigarette Program…as the musical entertainment supporting comedian Red Skelton. Premiering in the fall of 1941, Skelton’s program would soon become one of the airwaves’ top comedy shows, and Harriet was often pressed into service to play the female characters on Red’s half-hour of hilarity. For example, when Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper greeted his girlfriend with “We-e-e-e-e-lll Da-a-a-a-i-i-sy June!”—it was Harriet who voiced the object of Clem’s affection. Harriet was also the mother of Junior, “the mean widdle kid.” Ozzie & Harriet’s exposure on the Skelton program allowed Mr. Nelson to join his wife in that acting thing, and the duo made a number of entertaining pictures together, notably Sweetheart of the Campus (1941) and Honeymoon Lodge (1943). Solo, Harriet proved a most fetching leading lady in vehicles like the Boston Blackie programmer Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and an entertaining entry from The Falcon franchise, The Falcon Strikes Back (1943).

ozzie&harriet1Red Skelton’s induction into the military at the end of the 1943-44 radio season would prove to be a small setback for Ozzie & Harriet. That is, until Fibber McGee & Molly creator Don Quinn suggested to Ozzie that he write his and Harriet’s own program. And so on October 8, 1944—the ninth anniversary of “America’s favorite young couple”—The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet premiered over CBS Radio. It would stay with “the stars’ address” until 1948, when it moved to NBC for a season…and then from 1949 to 1954 finished out its twelve-year radio run on ABC. When Ozzie & Harriet first went on the air, it was a “wild” (Harriet’s description) sitcom about a bandleader and his young wife—but over the years, it morphed into a gentler family situation comedy, particularly when the Nelsons’ real-life sons, David and Ricky, finally convinced their dad to let them play themselves on the show (before that, the roles had been essayed by professional child actors).

ozzieharriet3After an eight-year hiatus from the motion picture screen, Ozzie and Harriet teamed up again—along with David and Ricky—for Here Come the Nelsons (1952), a wacky comedic romp that in essence served as a pilot for the Nelson family’s successful transition onto the country’s television screens in the fall of 1952. The series would become one of the ABC Network’s most durable hits, lasting fourteen seasons and allowing viewers to literally watch the family members grow up, with Ricky becoming a teen music idol and David…well, becoming whatever he was, I guess. All kidding aside—The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet gets a bad rap for being the epitome of WASPy blandness (several critics have joked that the “Adventures” in the title is a misnomer unless you find picnics and games of backyard catch adventuresome), but the show is actually funnier than most people remember. And while Harriet may have been reduced to the role of straight woman…she could land a good zinger on her hubby from time to time.

img0153AWith the cancellation of their long-running sitcom, Ozzie and Harriet were content to limit their small screen appearances to guest roles on such series as Love, American Style and Night Gallery. The couple did attempt a TV comeback in 1973 with a syndicated sitcom entitled Ozzie’s Girls that had a fairly short shelf life (and there was a reason for that). With the passing of her husband in 1975, Harriet retired to the Laguna Beach, California beach home that the family had built for them in 1954. She was content to play a motherly “elder stateswoman” role in pop culture…while occasionally guest starring on the likes of The Love Boat and Happy Days. Hailed almost unanimously as one of television’s all-time “Top Moms,” Harriet Hilliard Nelson passed away of congestive heart failure in 1994 at the age of 85.

20520If you’re still skeptical about what I said regarding how underrated The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet was as a TV show, I invite you to check out some of the DVDs available here at Radio Spirits. I will admit, however, that the Nelsons really hit their stride in radio—one of their funniest broadcasts, from October 31, 1948 (“The Haunted House”), is available on the potpourri collection Happy Halloween! You can also listen to Harriet and her husband emote on guest broadcasts of Suspense (Tales Well Calculated), as well as enjoy them in their prime in the Red Skelton collections I Dood It! and Stick Around, Brother. “I’ve often said,” observed Harriet of Red in her interview with Chuck Schaden, “when his timing was so right, I used to get chills down my back. It was like listening to a great symphony. Such a talent!” But he owed a lot of that to you, Harriet Hilliard Nelson…and for that, we wish you a most happy birthday.

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